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New Chicago waterways sewage treatment years away

Father Rod Reinhart Pastor St Joseph's St. Aidan Episcopal Church uses Thurible as barge passes by while he leads 'Heal

Father Rod Reinhart, Pastor of St Joseph's and St. Aidan Episcopal Church, uses a Thurible as a barge passes by while he leads a "Heal the River" prayer service at the Water Reclamation District's waterfall on the Cal-Sag Channel in Blue Island, IL on Sunday June 19, 2011 | Matt Marton~Sun-Times Media

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Updated: January 23, 2012 2:45AM



Standing on the lip of the murky Calumet Sag Channel in Blue Island, the Rev. Rodney Reinhart blows a ram horn to heal the waters.

“Let us pray to end pollution and for the renewal of life in our environment and our created world,” said Reinhart, the pastor of St. Joseph’s and St. Aiadan’s Episcopal Church in Blue Island.

Gathering with about 15 supporters Sunday afternoon, Reinhart prayed for a world with less pollution and cleaner natural resources.

While Reinhart and his supporters are trying to fix the Chicago waterways spiritually, Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District board recently voted to clean up the water with science.

In as few as eight years, the district hopes two sewage treatment plants will have the technology to decontaminate all 250 million gallons of treated sewage that is pumped into the Chicago waterways daily.

Samuel Dorevitch, a visiting associate public health professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said Chicago is one of the only cities nationwide that continues this practice.

“Chicago is unique in that we separate our drinking water from our waste water flow,” he said. “It isn’t necessary for us to disinfect it to affect our drinking water.”

As it stands, it isn’t safe to swim in the Chicago River, which eventually runs into the Cal Sag through the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal. The E. coli count is far too high.

Dorevitch said Lake Michigan has an average E. coli count of 100 to 200; the Chicago River has an average E. coli count of 1,000. Decontaminating the treated sewage funneled in the waterways will reduce the bacteria, although it won’t solve everything.

“It’s not a magic bullet,” Dorevitch said. “It won’t make the water clean enough to drink, but it will improve it.”

Catherine O’Connor, an MWRD assistant director of monitoring and research, said the project could call for the installation of bacteria-destroying ultraviolet lights in the sewage channels at the plant. The technology may cost as much as $240 million.

The move is spurred in part by an April 2010 letter the Federal Environmental Protection Agency filed with the Illinois Pollution Board. The letter suggested Illinois lawmakers sterilize all treated sewage discharges into the waterways to make the Chicago River and all of its connected waterways swimmable, safe for fishing and open to all types of recreation.

After previously opposing the sanitation of treated sewage, the MWRD voted earlier this month in favor of a policy that would do as much.

“We’re proceeding extremely cautiously,” O’Connor said. “We want to do what’s best for the environment, and we want to make sure we consider the taxpayers.”

Animal waste and industrial runoff can also contribute to the contamination of the Chicago waterways, Dorevitch said. Sediment underneath the river loaded with E. coli, high levels of mercury and other poisonous products might also have to be unearthed in order to make it safe.

Heavy rains also can boost E. coli levels, and the Deep Tunnel flood protection system is addressing this issue, O’Connor said. Stormwater is and will be kept in these multibillion-gallon storage units before being shipped to the sewage treatment plants for full treatment.

O’Connor said the multibillion-gallon underground storage units are under construction in Thornton and Summit. While these are all set to be working by 2029, existing storage units are up and running in O’Hare and Thornton.

Meanwhile, Reinhart and his supporters are hoping divine intervention will help. On Sunday, Reinhart swung a censer of burning incense to the north, south east and west in a blessing over the water.

“Nature is something God has created,” Reinhart said. “And we believe, as a Christian people, that we’re being called to take greater responsibility, preserve and protect and restore all God has given to us in this world.”



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