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Environmentalists Say Chicago Waste Creates Dead Zone In Gulf Of Mexico

By Samantha Abernethy in News on Mar 15, 2012 8:20PM

Environmentalists say Chicago's wastewater is a major factor in creating the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, and a group of organizations is pushing for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to impose stricter standards on all states from here to the Gulf.

The "dead zone" is an area of the Gulf the size of Connecticut where the oxygen levels are too low to support life. Algae grows quickly with the help of an excess of nitrogen and phosphorous, and it sucks all of the oxygen from the water. The Natural Resources Defense Council says the Chicago area’s sewage has been found to be the biggest single contributor of that nitrogen and phosphorous.

NRDC is leading a group of environmental organization in the filing of three lawsuits that would change standards for measuring nitrogen and phosphorous. NRDC writes:

Although very different from one another, all three of our lawsuits seek in some manner to compel government agencies to stop ignoring the phosphorus problem in the Mississippi (and elsewhere) and do their job. The two suits filed this week against US EPA have a national focus. The first simply seeks an answer from US EPA to our concerns. NRDC and its partner organizations filed a petition in 2007 asking US EPA to comply with the Clean Water Act requirement that it update its sewage treatment regulations to reflect what current technology can do to remove phosphorus - not what technology could do in 1985, which was the last time the agency updated its regulations.

In March 2011 studies linked Chicago's pollution with the "dead zone" in the Gulf, so the NRDC, the Sierra Club and the Prairie River Network threatened to take action. In May the EPA ordered the State of Illinois to begin upgrading measures to clean up both the Chicago and Calumet Rivers. In response, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District said cleaning up waste is just a waste of time and money. By November the EPA approved new pollution standards for the Chicago River that the MWRD had made in response to the agency's criticism. But the environmentalists filing these lawsuits think more needs to be done. Crain's writes:

“Standards will give us a direct avenue to reduce pollution from treated sewage,” said Glyniss Collins, executive director of Prairie Rivers Network, a Springfield-based environment group, at a press briefing Wednesday. “Illinois has taken some steps on phosphorus, but not enough and not on nitrogen.”

The legal documents are available on the NRDC website.