CHICAGO – The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, the organization responsible for treating much of the Chicago area's sewage, says it is working to reduce the phosphorus content of the treated water it releases back into local rivers and streams, in advance of decisions from judges hearing litigation brought by environmental groups who have alleged the district should be held liable for "unnatural" plant and algae growth in area waterways, fueled primarily by phosphorus.
"Even though there are no legal requirements in Illinois for the water reclamation plants in question to remove phosphorus, the district volunteered for limits in its new permits," Allison Fore, public and intergovernmental affairs officer for the water management district, recently told the Cook County Record.
In a multi-jurisdictional legal fight, environmental groups allege that high levels of phosphorus in treated water released by the region's largest sewage treatment plant is to blame for unnatural levels of plant and algae growth along local streams and rivers. The groups want the court to order the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District to filter more phosphorus from the treated water before discharging it.
In April, a U.S. District Court judge rejected calls for summary judgment in the lawsuit. While he said the water management district had not proven enough to totally disprove the allegations of the Natural Resources Defense Council, the Sierra Club and the Prairie Rivers Network, he also determined that those groups had not done enough to prove the district was directly responsible for polluting the waterways.
Fore said that work is already underway to increase the amount of phosphorus removal from the water.
"The district is actively engaged in helping Illinois develop plans to achieve 45 percent reduction goals for nutrients in the Illinois and Mississippi River basins," she said. "We are working on several fronts to achieve reductions, including actively implementing nutrient removal facilities within the plants."
To this end, Fore said the district is setting up "the largest phosphorus recovery facility in the world" at its Stickney water reclamation plant. That facility is scheduled to open on May 25. According to documents posted by the district, the contract for that project was awarded to Black & Veatch Construction, of Overland Park, Kan., in 2014. The contract estimated the work to design and build the phosphorus recovery system at the Stickney plant - the largest wastewater treatment facility in the world - would cost about $33 million.
Fore said utility companies have been studying and working on the issue of phosphorus removal for a long time, mainly focused on a more natural solution.
"Yes, this has been a focus for utilities for quite some time," Fore said. "Wetlands can be effective in nutrient uptake. The district looked at the possibility of creating wetland areas along the Illinois River as an economic approach to achieve nutrient standards."
Another advantage to ideas such as these is that they are more cost-effective, which may even be a factor in the lawsuit.
"There is certainly a cost to removing phosphorus," Fore said. "Using biological removal treatment methods, this cost is minor in comparison to the low limits being proposed in the legal action."