Take me to the river, don't wash me in the water | Bleader

Take me to the river, don't wash me in the water

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A few days ago the Water Reclamation District officially asked state regulators to stop their push to clean up the Chicago River and other area waterways.

In a motion [PDF] filed with the Illinois Pollution Control Board, which essentially functions as a state environmental court, district attorneys argued that new water pollution standards proposed by the Illinois EPA would cost Cook County taxpayers billions of dollars "without any demonstration that it will bring about any appreciable improvement in water quality or benefit to public health." They asked the pollution board to end public testimony on the proposed standards until more research is done, including an $8 million study the district has commissioned with the UIC public health department.

The pollution board hasn’t ruled on the motion yet, but at a previously scheduled public hearing Monday night several dozen canoeists, kayakers, fishermen, and environmental activists urged board members to put the tougher standards in place as soon as possible—or risk losing money.

“People are yearning to use this river, and I hope there’s some ability to use the technology, whatever that is, to make the river a safer place, because I know the investment will pay off in multitudes over the years,” said Charles Portis, who leads an architectural paddling tour on the Chicago River.

Grant Crowley recalled that the water was full of trash when he opened a boatyard on the South Branch of the Chicago River in 1978. After storms the river would be inundated with raw sewage. “It was disgusting,” he said.

By now, though, the Water Reclamation District’s investments in new technology have improved things enough that people fish out of the river and build new homes along it, Crowley said. And his business has thrived, with 50 employees and $5 million in annual revenues. Cleaning up the waterways, he argued, would lure more boaters and fishermen who’d spend tens of millions more.

Just one speaker urged the board to go slow—Wally Van Buren of the Illinois Association of Wastewater Agencies, who took up the Water Reclamation District’s argument.

But those who preceded and followed him told stories of experiencing wildlife while paddling on the Chicago, River, then also coming home with rashes or eye infections from direct exposure to bacteria in the water.

“In decades gone by the joke was that communities downstream from Chicago weren’t going to take any more crap from the city,” said Tom Bamonti, a kayaker. “Well, we’ve cured that problem but we’re still sending loads of bacteria down the river. We owe it to our neighbors and we owe it to ourselves to disinfect the Chicago River.”

The issue won't be decided for months, at least. Another round of hearings is scheduled for September, and state officials would have to take several more steps before implementing any new rules. And that's without additional legal fights.

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