There are still bubbles
Debating how to clean up Bridgeport’s former dumping ground
09/16/2009 10:00 PM
A chain link fence separates Bubbly Creek, a polluted backwater cul-de-sac of the Chicago River, from human contact near 35th Street and Racine Avenue.
A century ago, the Union Stock Yards used the creek to dump blood, grease and animal entrails.
Few bodies of water in the Chicago area remain as fetid, though the stagnant water from the creek rarely flows anywhere. But just outside the fence on the east bank near 33rd Street, a flower-lined red brick path winds its way through Bridgeport Village, an affluent residential community built in recent years just a few yards from the creek.
It’s a sight of stunning contrasts — old and new, filthy and spotless — matched only by the disparity between how quickly area residents would like the creek cleaned and the glacial pace with which that’s being done.
A proposal by the Illinois EPA to raise the minimum required level of dissolved oxygen in the creek, which is essential for fish to survive, remains undecided after three years of Illinois Pollution Control Board hearings.
“It’s a long game, and we’re in about the fifth inning,” said Albert Ettinger, a Chicago Legal Clinic attorney representing a variety of environmental groups at the hearings. “Who knows how the score will turn out.”
To this day, on hot afternoons, the creek’s stench can plague the surrounding area. The Illinois EPA’s proposal, which urges an increase in the amount of dissolved oxygen required in the water, would require building expensive supplemental aeration stations to pump the gas into the water, something the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District would rather not spend money to do. The project would cost at least $60 million to build and at least $1 million a year to operate and maintain.
“Anything in terms of upgrading the quality of waterways is a priority,” said district spokeswoman Jill Horist. “But the master plan also has to be maintained.”
The district delayed starting a demonstration project that involves testing a technique called Active Tapping to clean a portion of the creek near 31st Street, Horist said. She could not immediately confirm why it was delayed or when the project would begin.
The fate of Bubbly Creek represents part of a larger and much more heated debate at the Illinois Pollution Control Board between the EPA and the water district over whether to disinfect sewage before releasing it into the Chicago River and the creek after heavy rains overwhelm the system.
The EPA wants the sewage disinfected first. The district maintains that can’t be done with current facilities. The problem is, there’s no place to hold the water until it can be treated.
“This is simple,” said Henry Henderson, midwest director of the Natural Resources Defense Council, an environmental advocacy group. “Human excrement — intestinal miasma — dumped into a major city’s river is dumb, bad, stupid. Knock it off.”
District officials have argued that disinfection is unnecessary, since the problem occurs infrequently and sewage is being released into bodies of water where swimming isn’t allowed.
The district’s planned reservoirs will drastically reduce the number of overflows from combined storm and sanitary sewers that send untreated sewage into Lake Michigan and the Chicago River. But the project won’t be complete for years.
As for Bubbly Creek, the Illinois EPA’s recommendations come after study of existing uses of the 1.31-mile waterway and what uses are attainable.
“We expect more canoeing, kayaking, boating and fishing, but not swimming,” said Rob Sulski, a project manager for the agency. “No one is advocating swimming in that waterway.”
Raising the level of dissolved oxygen is aimed at increasing the fish population, as well as the number of microbes that clean the water and improve how it smells, Sulski said.
The pollution control board has three more hearings scheduled this fall before it must rule on the EPA’s water use suggestions. A briefing period will follow the last hearing in November.
Sulski said he thought a realistic timeframe for improving the water quality of Bubbly Creek was six or seven years, assuming the new dissolved oxygen standards are accepted.
That would be at about the same time the district reservoirs are expected to be completed.
In the meantime, residents walking the red-brick path or fishing from the bridges will have to wait to see any fish.
“You don’t have to tell the fish not to go up there,” Sulski said. “They know.”