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Environmental groups sue to stop Chicago's chronic sewage dumping
Billions of gallons of disease-causing waste still pour into Chicago River during rainstorms, and into Lake Michigan during the most intense downpours

Published May 03, 2011 | By Michael Hawthorne

With no end in sight to Chicago's chronic water pollution problems, environmental groups filed a lawsuit Tuesday seeking to stop the routine dumping of human and industrial waste into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan.

The 12-page complaint, filed in U.S. District Court, is the latest salvo in a long-running dispute about the river, which engineers reversed away from Lake Michigan at the beginning of the last century to block Chicago's sewage from flowing into its source of drinking water.

Environmental groups accuse the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of repeatedly violating the federal Clean Water Act by allowing sewage to pour out of overflow pipes during rainstorms. During the most intense downpours, district officials open locks separating the Chicago River from Lake Michigan and allow a noxious mix of runoff and disease-causing waste to flow into the lake.

The groups are asking for a court order to stop the district from dumping sewage into area waterways immediately, but the lawsuit does not specify how that should happen.

The complaint comes as the U.S. and Illinois Environmental Protection Agencies and the U.S. Department of Justice inch closer to a legal deal intended to address the pollution problems.

A draft agreement, summarized in an April 21 memo to the district's elected board, calls for more specific deadlines to finish the Deep Tunnel project, a labyrinth of giant sewer pipes and cavernous reservoirs that isn't scheduled to be completed until 2029.

Neither the district nor the federal agencies would comment. But as part of the proposed agreement, the district would pay a $670,000 fine and spend $325,000 on "green infrastructure" that allows rainfall to naturally absorb into the ground rather than flow into sewers, according to the memo.

Chicago's civil penalties would be substantially less than what other cities have paid to settle similar cases. Cleveland, for instance, agreed late last year to spend $42 million on green infrastructure and to pay a $1.2 million fine as part of an agreement to fix the Ohio city's aging sewers.

Albert Ettinger, an attorney involved in the Chicago lawsuit filed by the Natural Resources Defense Council, Sierra Club and Prairie Rivers Network, noted that federal regulators have been investigating the Water Reclamation District for nearly a decade but have failed to take action.

Source: Chicago Tribune
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