Chicago Reaches Settlement to Reduce Sewage Overflows

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the Department of Justice (DOJ), and the State of Illinois on Dec. 14 announced a Clean Water Act (CWA) settlement with the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) to resolve claims that untreated sewer discharges were released into Chicago area waterways during flood and wet weather events. The settlement will safeguard water quality and protect people’s health by capturing stormwater and wastewater from the combined sewer system, which services the city of Chicago and 51 communities.

“This consent decree requires MWRD to invest in green roofs, rain gardens and other green infrastructure to prevent basement flooding in the neighborhoods that are most severely impacted by sewer overflows,” said EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman. “The enforceable schedule established by this consent decree will also ensure completion of the deep tunnel and reservoir system to control untreated sewage releases into Chicago area rivers and Lake Michigan.”

Under the settlement, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District (MWRD) will work to complete a tunnel and reservoir plan to increase its capacity to handle wet weather events and address combined sewer overflow discharges. The project will be completed in a series of stages in 2015, 2017 and 2029. The settlement also requires MWRD to control trash and debris in overflows using skimmer boats to remove debris from the water so it can be collected and properly managed, making waterways cleaner and healthier. MWRD is also required to implement a green infrastructure program that will reduce stormwater runoff in areas serviced by MWRD by distributing rain barrels and developing projects to build green roofs, rain gardens or use pervious paving materials in urban neighborhoods. MWRD has also agreed to pay a civil penalty of $675,000.
Raw sewage contains pathogens that threaten public health, leading to beach closures and public advisories against fishing and swimming. This problem particularly affects older urban areas, where minority and low-income communities are often located. Keeping raw sewage and contaminated stormwater out of the waters of the United States is one of EPA’s National Enforcement Initiatives for 2011 to 2013. The initiative focuses on reducing discharges from sewer overflows by obtaining cities’ commitments to implement timely, affordable solutions to these problems, including the increased use of green infrastructure and other innovative approaches.

MWRD owns 36 CSO outfalls located on Chicago area river ways. The 51 satellite communities own 334 CSO outfalls also located on Chicago area river ways.

MWRD will complete implementation of CSO remedial measures to eliminate a substantial percentage of CSOs by Dec. 31, 2029, that, upon completion, are estimated at as cost of more than $3 billion. These measures include:

An enforceable schedule for completion of CSO remedial measures known as the “tunnel and reservoir plan” or TARP. This plan includes the construction of 109 miles of tunnels that have a storage capacity of approximately 2.3 billion gallons, and the completion of three reservoirs. The tunnel and reservoirs will have a combined capacity of approximately 17 billion gallons of sewage and flood water. Work on TARP began nearly 40 years ago but have been delayed by funding and engineering challenges, according to report in the Chicago Tribune.

The report indicates a total of $3.3 billion has been spent on the deep tunnel system that went online in 2006.

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