MWRD to start up world's largest Phosphorus recovery facility despite disappointing Court decision
As part of the plaintiffs' overall focus on the hypoxia issue in the Gulf of Mexico, the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD) has been called to defend against allegations that treated effluent from the MWRD's water treatment plants contains nutrients that are causing or will cause unnatural plant and algal growth in the Chicago Area Waterways System (CAWS).
Nutrients are an issue within the Mississippi River basin. As nutrients run into the Gulf of Mexico they cause hypoxia zones. This is a large area that is oxygen-depleted and cannot support aquatic life. Other regions across the United States also see negative effects from high nutrient loads. Toledo, Ohio had to turn off the tap water because of algal blooms in Lake Erie. The nutrient that has the most effect on fresh water hypoxia is phosphorus while salt water zones are primarily fueled by nitrogen loads. However, in both fresh and salt water many other water attributes need to be present for nutrients to cause problems. They do not cause problems alone.
Illinois Rivers generally do not have the environmental conditions that cause unnatural algal blooms. The state has identified a handful of algal problems within Illinois. They do not include the Chicago Area Waterway System (CAWS). Therefore, the MWRD does not believe there is any legal justification for the petitioners' claims. The court has determined that they are entitled to a hearing. Recently, one of the attorneys representing the petitioners posted an article reporting the algal problems in the CAWS. The article included a picture of algal blooms in a waterway. It is an interesting note that the picture was a section of the lower Des Moines River in Iowa. This is because there are no pictures of the CAWS that display this problem.
While disappointed with the recent opinion of the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, the MWRD is pleased that the Court denied the plaintiffs' Motion for Summary Judgment asking to find that the MWRD has violated certain provisions of its NPDES Permits and, therefore, the Clean Water Act.
In its opinion, the Court made clear that the plaintiffs bear a substantial burden to prove that any such violation occurred and that the plaintiffs have thus far failed to establish that the MWRD's effluent is causing or contributing to unnatural algal and plant growth in the CAWS.
The MWRD believes that it will prevail against the plaintiffs' claims. The MWRD operates its water reclamation plants under state-approved NPDES permits, and there are no numeric water quality standards for such nutrients in Illinois. Even though there are no legal requirements in Illinois for the water reclamation plants in question to remove phosphorus, the MWRD accepted limits in its new permits. The MWRD is actively engaged in helping Illinois develop plans to achieve 45% reduction goals for nutrients in the Illinois and Mississippi River basins. We are working on several fronts to achieve reductions including actively implementing removal facilities within the plants in question.
Although these challenges cause legal delays in requirements, the MWRD is refusing to allow these interferences to delay implementation of our reduction plans. In fact, the MWRD is starting up the largest nutrient recovery facility in the world at the present time. We are celebrating this on May 25 as Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., the founder of Riverkeeper, will applaud the MWRD's efforts in leading our nation forward to address the nutrient problems in our country.
As water issues become more complicated and need solutions that are much broader than water reclamation plants can achieve, we need to learn how to work together. The paradigm of lawsuits and fighting wastes time and money while we should all be using this energy to solve the problems.
Link to University of Iowa article with Lower Des Moines River photo: