Editorial: Clean water and polluters don’t mix

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If your job is to clean up Chicago’s rivers and canals, it defies common sense to rent land to a company that pollutes the local waters.

Yet that is exactly what the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago is up to, continuing a pattern of doing too little too late to keep factory waste and sewage out of the same waterways kayakers now paddle.

The water reclamation district should employ every legal means to break its lease with the one polluter, and get out of the whole business of leasing land along urban waterways to oil refineries, asphalt plants and antifreeze manufacturers. The district’s landlord role is fundamentally at odds with its mission to protect water quality.

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State and federal regulators also should press the water reclamation district to reduce or eliminate sewage overflows into the Chicago River and Lake Michigan after heavy rains.

As reported in the Sun-Times on Sunday, the water reclamation district rents out 8.67 acres along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal to Olympic Oil, a company with a record of four reported toxic spills since 2006. Two of the spills, both in 2014, left sheens of oil on the canal, which flows into the Des Plaines River.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan is suing Olympic Oil, accusing the company of violating environmental regulations. Among other offenses, Madigan alleges that the company failed last February to report the spill of 50,000 gallons of deadly antifreeze.

But Olympic Oil is not the water reclamation district’s only problem tenant. Over the past 15 years, the Illinois attorney general’s office has filed five other lawsuits against tenants of the district, collecting more than $300,000 in fines for environmental violations, according to Sun-Times reporter Tim Novak and Better Government Association investigator Brett Chase.

More than a century ago, Chicago was a pioneer preservationist when it declared its lakefront “forever open, clear and free.” But the city was far more sanguine about protecting rivers and canals, allowing them to become sludge-filled conduits for raw sewage and toxic waste. It wasn’t until the 1960s that city leaders began talking seriously about reclaiming the local waters, and even then people laughed when Mayor Richard J. Daley predicted the Chicago River would one day be safe to fish again.

That legacy of Chicago’s industrial past has been a drag, in thinking and action, on its commitment to put an end to polluting.

Even now, as the Chicago Tribune noted Sunday, the water reclamation district releases raw waste and storm sewer runoff into the Chicago River during heavy rains, a practice unheard of in most other American cities. And even after the district next spring begins to chemically disinfect effluent from its Skokie water treatment plant — among the last big cities to do so — bacteria levels in the Chicago River at times will still be dangerously high for boaters. Don’t even think about swimming.

Recent testing by the district revealed high levels of bacteria from human waste at more than a dozen spots on both Chicago’s North and South sides, the Tribune reported, with levels frequently spiking to tens of thousands of times above legal limits.

The district’s long-term solution, completion of the Deep Tunnel project to contain sewage overflows, won’t be fully realized until 2029.

All this begs the question of whether the water reclamation district is seriously mismanaged.

The district charges Olympic Oil $175,000 a year in rent, which is only about $30,000 more than the property tax bill. It works with an annual budget of more than $1 billion, but claimed for years that it could not pay for the disinfecting process. Yet the district pays nine part-time commissioners at least $70,000 a year, and it pays a number of staffers more than $200,000 a year.

In a recent column in the Sun-Times, Andy Shaw, CEO of the Better Government Association, made an excellent suggestion — the district should hire an inspector general to root out waste and mismanagement.

But in yet another indication of poor management, a spokesman for the district told Shaw that an “external auditor” had decided that an inspector general “would not be recommended.”

Meanwhile, the district cleans water with one hand while leasing land to polluters with the other.

We wish we could say for sure which hand has the upper hand.

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