The ‘hole’ story: Quarry soon to provide flood relief
BY STEVE METSCH email@example.com July 13, 2014 7:22PM
Updated: August 15, 2014 6:22AM
The flooding issues that have plagued the Southland for years — including after the torrential downpours of the past weekend — are expected to be substantially alleviated as the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s Deep Tunnel project progresses.
Enter the Thornton Quarry. About 40 people did so literally on Saturday, enjoying a rare view of what most get only a glimpse of while crossing high above on Interstate 80-94. The quarry is where much of the rainwater will end up in the future and, if all goes as planned, that will go a long way toward ending the scourge of flooded basements whenever rain falls, as it did Saturday morning and during the storms of June 30.
The visitors to the quarry Saturday were part of a tour conducted by the Southeast Environmental Task Force.
Standing on a wooden platform, they gazed at the wonder of what is known as the north section of the quarry.
Talk about perfect timing: Rain fell as if on cue, demonstrating how the quarry is expected to one day become a vast reservoir.
Pools of water had gathered on the quarry floor — some 340 feet down — but not to worry. The biggest hole in the Southland can hold an estimated 7.9 billion gallons of water, officials said. And if we ever get that much rain to fill it, we’ll have a lot more than soggy cellars to worry about, said Alan Brooks, a resident of downtown Chicago who was on the tour.
Tom Shepherd, president of the task force, led the tour, offering interesting trivia and details en route.
Soggy visitors gathered around MWRD employees, who talked of the quarry and future plans. In about a year, it will be ready to accept water from Thorn Creek, which should relieve flooding in the south suburbs, officials said.
Water will be retained in the quarry when storms hit, eventually flowing to a water-processing plant at 130th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, officials said.
Suzette Pierson and Mary Nell Murphy were among the curious who paid $25 for the tour offered by the Southeast Environmental Task Force.
“This is amazing. I am very impressed. I had no idea,” Pierson said. “I didn’t realize it’s the largest quarry in the world. I’m excited to see it, especially in today’s weather. And I didn’t realize it’s been in operation since 1837. That amazed me, too.”
Murphy, her neighbor in Chicago’s Hyde Park community, said, “It’s great to see, especially with the Deep Tunnel project coming. I know all this rain will go out into Lake Michigan. ... It’s great to see the rock formations, too.”
The friends were impressed when Austin Eyinle, an assistant engineer for the MWRD, drove them down to the quarry floor in a sport utility vehicle, carefully negotiating a gravel road that looked better suited for mountain goats. It was nerve-racking for guests, but a Sunday drive on a Saturday for him.
“I’ve only been scared only once — the first time I was here when they used dynamite,” Eyinle, a 20-year employee, said with a big smile.
On the drive down, Eyinle pointed out the two large tunnels, one from Thorn Creek, that is 20 feet in diameter, and another — this one 30 feet in diameter — that leads to a water treatment plant.
He noted the impromptu waterfalls cascading down. That water was runoff from I-80/94, he said. It made for some spectacular shots on cellphone cameras.
Down on the gravel floor, Tony Dzik, of Chicago’s Pullman community, gazed up, snapping photo after photo.
“Isn’t that amazing?” he said with a smile. “I’ve gone over on (I-)80 a million times and tried to see the bottom. But this is the first time I’m seeing it.
“I don’t want to see it filled with water. But isn’t this great? It’s magnificent. A beautiful waterfall. The only one in town.”
Murphy thought the tall limestone walls resembled Norwegian fjords. And she and Pierson found fossils with tiny shell imprints, remnants of ancient seas from millions of years ago.
After the quarry tour, visitors stopped at the Calumet Water Treatment Plant at 130th and Cottage Grove. Tommy Hullum, an Operating Engineer 1, herded visitors — only 10 at a time — onto a cramped elevator that whisked them down 335 feet into the famed Deep Tunnel.
After opening what he called “one of our submarine doors,” a thick, red metal door, and down a hall hewn out of rugged bedrock, Hullum showed them large pumps that move the water through the station to treatment areas, where it is cleaned of sewage before being sent on its way.
“We make sure those doors are closed and locked just in case. Me? I’m not waiting on the elevator,” he said, motioning toward a staircase.
Not sure if he was serious or joking, some laughed nervously.
The plant is part of the MWRD’s TARP system. That’s short for Tunnel and Reservoir Plan, part of the Deep Tunnel project that was started in 1972 and is designed to protect the water quality of Lake Michigan and to, hopefully, prevent flooding in basements from Waukegan to Tinley Park.
When all the reservoirs are completed, the TARP system storage volume will be a whopping 17.5 billion gallons.
Near the pumps, there’s a constant buzzing noise from the electrical transformers nearby. A large hole in the rock roof is a service tunnel that leads to the surface and allows workers to lower heavy equipment if needed, Hullum said.
“When we get a downpour like we had today, almost three inches in a half-hour, it’s pretty busy here,” Hullum said.
Engineers keep close watch on the water levels.
“When you start to smell the sewer more, the water is high,” he said. “If it goes too high, it’s in people’s basements. Too low and I’m sucking up rocks.
“When TARP fills up, the water has no other place to go,” he said, adding that when the Thornton Reservoir is up and running, things should improve dramatically. “As the population expanded, the quarry had to come into play.”
There were “a lot of tense moments” when big storms hit on June 30, he said.
Regarding our soggy July, he said, “The ground is so saturated right now, everything comes to us. The dryer the ground, the better we are.”
Before boarding the bus back to downtown Chicago, John Kooyenga, 71, called the tour “fabulous.”
“We got to see the inside of the quarry and what they’ve done with it. And coming here to see another piece of the puzzle, it’s exciting,” said Kooyenga.
He is a fortunate Southlander: He has not experienced major flooding problems in the 42 years he’s lived in Tinley Park.