Michael Hawthorne reports:
The Obama administration is ordering an ambitious cleanup of the Chicago River, a dramatic step toward improving an urban waterway treated for more than a century as little more than an industrialized sewage canal.
In a letter obtained Wednesday by the Tribune (PDF), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency demands that stretches of the river must be clean enough for “recreation in and on the water,” a legal term for recreational activities including swimming and canoeing. The order also applies to two connected waterways, the Cal-Sag Channel and Little Calumet River.
If state officials fail to adopt more stringent water quality standards, the “EPA will promptly do so itself” by invoking its authority under the federal Clean Water Act, the agency’s top water official told Lisa Bonnett, interim director of the Illinois EPA.
“A decade of investments in walkways, boat ramps and parks have provided people with access to the water,” Susan Hedman, the U.S. EPA’s regional administrator, said in a statement. “And now we need to make sure the water is safe.”
Federal officials have been suggesting the river improvements for more than a year but took more aggressive action because they believed state regulators haven’t gone far enough. Complying with the order likely will require more expensive sewer bills in Chicago and the Cook County suburbs, where homeowners and businesses pay among the nation’s lowest costs for treating human and industrial waste.
The nine-page order goes far beyond standards adopted last year by the Illinois Pollution Control Board, a state rule-making panel. The state’s plan limits disease-causing bacteria in the river, but only to a point considered safe enough for paddlers and boaters who briefly fall into the water.
What the Obama administration is envisioning sets the bar higher. As a result, two of the Chicago-area’s massive sewage-treatment plants would need to be overhauled to disinfect partially treated human and industrial waste that churns endlessly into the waterways. Chicago is the only major U.S. city that skips that important germ-killing step. Until now, the river and its connected waterways have been exempt from the toughest provisions of the Clean Water Act because it was long assumed that people wouldn’t want to come near the fetid channels.
(click here to continue reading Water pollution: Obama EPA orders dramatic cleanup of the Chicago River – chicagotribune.com.)
A few photos of the Chicago River. More here