Chicago Area Wastewater to Finally Be Disinfected

By Linda Seggelke

At a glance, the reversal of the Chicago River over a hundred years ago may seem like drastic behavior. But with so much sewage, offal and industrial waste pouring into the river and, ultimately, Lake Michigan, fears of fouling the city’s water supply were very real.

Because of this, our supply of drinking water is relatively safe today. Just don’t fall into the river. According to EPA estimates, upwards of 70% of the Chicago River is comprised of the sewage that we continue to pump in.

riverWhile the river is famous for a 19th Century engineering feat, it will soon be the recipient of something that should have occurred in the 20th. The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) recently broke ground on two new disinfection facilities. Completion is planned for December 2015.

The new installations will go into the Terrence J. O’Brien water reclamation plant in suburban Stickney and the Calumet plant on Chicago’s far south side along Lake Calumet. The new plants will disinfect the effluent that the MWRD pumps back into the local waterway system.

“We are happy to move forward on the disinfection projects,” said MWRD President Kathleen Meany. “The Chicago area waterways are treasures that should be clean and safe. Implementing disinfection at the O’Brien and Calumet plants will not only improve the waterways but will have a positive impact on aquatic life.”

Chicago has the undesirable distinction of being the nation’s last major city to disinfect its treated wastewater. After years of pressure from the EPA as well as other groups, the MWRD voted in 2011 to address the situation. These new disinfection installations will finally remove that stigma and help to clean up the Chicago River and Lake Michigan. “Wastewater disinfection is the natural next step in ensuring that the river will become clean and healthy for the people who live here and visit as well as the wildlife that calls it home,” said Margaret Frisbie, Executive Director of the Friends of the Chicago River.

The Calumet plant will use chlorine to disinfect the wastewater while ultraviolet irradiation will be put to use at O’Brien. Chlorination is often cheaper than ultraviolet disinfection, though it comes with the need to handle possibly hazardous materials. Ultraviolet is safer for workers and adds no extra chemicals to the effluent. However, some microorganisms can sometimes repair the destructive effects of the radiation.

IHC Construction Company and Keyboard Enterprises Development will cooperate on the $32 million project at the Calumet plant while Walsh Construction was awarded the nearly $63 million contract for the Skokie project. MWRD earmarked another $21 million last year for engineering firms CH2M Hill and Greely & Hansen to design the new disinfection facilities. Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Governor Pat Quinn joined the EPA in announcing a $10 million grant through the Illinois Jobs Now! capital program for the work, though Cook County property taxes will foot most of the cost.

Breaking ground on the MWRD’s new disinfection facility at the O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant in Skokie are (L-R): State Rep. Robyn Gabel, IL Finance Authority Exec. Director Chris Meister, MWRD Commissioner Kari Steele, MWRD Vice Pres. Barbara McGowan, MWRD Exec. Director David St. Pierre, MWRD Chairman of Finance Mariyana Spyropoulos, Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen, MWRD Commissioner Frank Avila, MWRD Pres. Kathleen Meany, MWRD Commissioner Patrick D. Thompson, U.S. EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, MWRD Commissioner Debra Shore, Friends of the Chicago River Exec. Director Margaret Frisbie, Illinois EPA Director Lisa Bonnett, and MWRD Commissioner Michael Alvarez.

Breaking ground on the MWRD’s new disinfection facility at the O’Brien Water Reclamation Plant in Skokie are (L-R): State Rep. Robyn Gabel, IL Finance Authority Exec. Director Chris Meister, MWRD Commissioner Kari Steele, MWRD Vice Pres. Barbara McGowan, MWRD Exec. Director David St. Pierre, MWRD Chairman of Finance Mariyana Spyropoulos, Skokie Mayor George Van Dusen, MWRD Commissioner Frank Avila, MWRD Pres. Kathleen Meany, MWRD Commissioner Patrick D. Thompson, U.S. EPA Region 5 Administrator Susan Hedman, MWRD Commissioner Debra Shore, Friends of the Chicago River Exec. Director Margaret Frisbie, Illinois EPA Director Lisa Bonnett, and MWRD Commissioner Michael Alvarez.

Governor Quinn also directed the Illinois EPA and Illinois Finance Authority to expand the state revolving fund program as part of the Illinois Clean Water Initiative (ICWI), which makes low-interest loans to local governments for water infrastructure projects. Last spring, the governor awarded a $250 million low-interest loan to the MWRD to move forward with projects crucial for improving the water environment and protecting public health. Financed through the ICWI, the projects will create 2,000 construction-related jobs and support an additional 8,000 jobs in local communities.

The end of construction for the disinfection facilities will coincide with the opening of the Thornton reservoir, a major component in the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan (TARP), or “Deep Tunnel.” While the disinfection will better treat the wastewater that the MWRD pumps out every day, the TARP is designed to handle large stormwater events that overtake the area’s water-handling capacity. Large storms often result in wastewater ending up in the river and/or lake untreated.

The MWRD executed an agreement with the owner of the Thornton quarry 14 years ago to mine the north lobe of the quarry for use as a component of the TARP. “Part of the MWRD’s mission is to protect the Chicago area waterways from raw sewage while protecting homes and businesses from flood damage, and this project will be doing both,” said MWRD Commissioner Michael Alvarez, chairman of the MWRD’s stormwater management committee. “The Thornton Reservoir will greatly benefit communities throughout the southside of Chicago and south suburbs of Cook County once it’s completed.”

The TARP was the first system of its kind to address pollution and flooding and is emulated by cities around the world, including London, Singapore and Vienna. Working in tandem with the new disinfection plants, the combination will maximize water quality while minimizing flooding.

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