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MWRD Mess: Why Good PR Is Important

By JoshMogerman in News on Jun 5, 2010 2:40PM

Under the Michigan Avenue Bridge 2 by jmogs via Flickr
It has been a rough week at the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District. The Trib revealed that the US EPA has joined the City and State in pushing for a significant clean-up of the Chicago River as part of an ongoing battle over the District's practice of dumping effluent into the waterway. And despite the Mayor's prickly "swim in the Potomac" response to the feds, the heat was turned up further on Thursday with strong anti-pollution editorials in both the Trib and the Sun-Times.

The Trib’s Steve Chapman took exception to the District’s claim that our region cannot afford to stop dumping water rife with bacteria from human waste, noting on his blog that the Chicago River:

...contains hundreds of times more bacteria than the rivers in cities like Philadelphia and Minnneapolis-St. Paul. We can't afford it? If Detroit can afford it, we can afford it.

And in a column a column entitled, Have we given up too easily on a clean river? Mark Brown at the Sun-Times wrote:

Something we seem to have forgotten over the decades is that it's not as if reversing the flow of the Chicago River to keep the pollution from going into Lake Michigan just made all that untreated wastewater magically disappear. All we did was flush it Downstate.

So with all the bad press, it is no surprise that the folks at MWRD would want to get their story out to the press. One problem: Crain’s Chicago Business columnist Greg Hinz noted in his blog a couple weeks ago that a shakeup in the District led to the ouster of their long-time public affairs manager. With no PR pro on-hand, a hastily assembled press conference seemed to have devolved quickly on Thursday leaving the Trib's Michael Hawthorne with some interesting quotes that ranged from the bizarre to the downright insensitive:

"Without the man-made waterway system ... the Chicago area would revert to being the pre-settlement swamp it was and every basement would become a flood water reservoir," according to Richard Lanyon, the district's general superintendent.

The superintendent also invoked the recent tragic drowning of Cashmere Castillo to imply that a cleaner Chicago River would have horrific impacts, "The EPA's misguided advocacy would place additional lives at risk because the waterways are not safe for swimming," Lanyon said.

Those are comments unlikely to rally the public around an intentionally polluted river anytime soon... And if they keep it up, business as usual at the District could become as much a thing of the past as their practice of dumping and diluting poo germs in the river.