CHICAGO - Chicago waterways long used to carry away the city's waste must be cleaned up expeditiously so residents can play in them, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told state officials on Thursday.
"A decade of investments in walkways, boat ramps and parks has provided people with access to the water — and now we need to make sure that the water is safe," Susan Hedman, the agency's Midwest regional administrator, said in a statement.
Boaters commonly ply the city's rivers and canals, and residences have replaced some industries along the waterways in recent years. But users are warned against extensive contact with the water.
The agency informed the Illinois Pollution Control Board that if it does not promptly adopt higher standards for waters in the North and South Branches of the Chicago River, the North Shore Channel, the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River, the agency will use its power under the U.S. Clean Water Act to do so.
Illinois regulators have for years sought to upgrade water standards, but the process has bogged down.
Higher standards will likely require treated sewage to be disinfected, regulators said. Three Chicago-area treatment plants are among the few in major U.S. cities not to take the extra step to disinfect effluent before releasing it into public waterways.
The Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, which operates the city's sewer and water systems, has said disinfecting effluent would be expensive. Some estimates have put the cost at about $1 billion, others much less.
The waterways were linked to the Mississippi River basin a century ago when a canal was constructed and the direction of the Chicago River reversed to avoid dumping sewage into Lake Michigan, the source of the city's drinking water.
Last week, several environmental groups filed a federal lawsuit against the Water Reclamation District seeking to stop it from dumping untreated sewage and storm water into Chicago's waterways during storms.
The suit called for completion of the city's $3 billion Deep Tunnel project, begun in the 1970s to handle storm runoff.
(Reporting by Andrew Stern; Editing by Dan Grebler)