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Feds: Make Chicago River Clean Enough To Swim In

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The Chicago River (CBS)

The Chicago River (CBS)

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CHICAGO (CBS/WBBM) – The Obama administration is warning that the Chicago River is not as clean as it should be, and state environmental officials must set up tougher clean water standards.

As WBBM Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya reports, the Chicago Tribune obtained a letter Wednesday issued by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The letter demands that parts of the river be clean enough for “recreation in and on the water,” which means activities from swimming to canoeing.

LISTEN: Newsradio 780’s Bernie Tafoya reports

The order also applies to the Cal-Sag Channel and the Little Calumet River.

“Right now, you need to be really careful. You have to wash your hands, you can’t rub your eyes,” Margaret Frisbe, of the Friends of the Chicago River, told CBS 2’s Derrick Blakley. “There are populations who are at risk like children, pregnant women, anyone with compromised immune system. They’re at really great risk from bacterial sewage.”

The federal EPA says it will step in if the Illinois EPA does not tighten its water standards.

State EPA interim director Lisa Bonnett said Wednesday that the EPA is pushing to have sewage treatment plants outfitted with disinfection equipment within three years.

Chicago is the only major city in the United States that does not disinfect human and industrial waste in the sewers before it ends up in the waterways, the Tribune reported.

But complying with the order will likely mean higher sewer bills in Chicago and suburban Cook County, where such bills are among the nation’s lowest, the newspaper reported.

The first order from the U.S. EPA to make the Chicago River safe for swimming came last year.

In its order last year, the U.S. EPA cited a guideline from the Clean Water Act of 1972, which said, “It is the national goal that wherever attainable, an interim goal of water quality which provides for the protection and propagation of fish, shellfish, and wildlife and provides for recreation in and on the water be achieved by July 1, 1983.”

Nearly three decades after the Clean Water Act timetable expired, the EPA said last year, it’s time for the Chicago River system to come into compliance when it comes to “recreation.”

That order last year also included the North, South and Main branches of the Chicago River, and the lower Des Plaines River. It also included the Cal-Sag Channel, the Chicago Sanitary & Ship Canal, all river tributaries extending to the Lockport area, and Lake Calumet. The last body of water on that list is adjacent to a toxic Superfund site.

When the EPA issued the order last year, Mayor Richard M. Daley complained that Washington was offering no money to make it happen, and maybe they should instead focus on its own river.

“Go swim in the Potomac,” Daley said last year.

Preventing sewage from running into the river is the very purpose of the Deep Tunnel System, Daley said last year. But the federal government had been cutting back funding on the Deep Tunnel every year, he said.

(TM and © Copyright 2011 CBS Radio Inc. and its relevant subsidiaries. CBS Radio and EYE Logo TM and Copyright 2011 CBS Broadcasting Inc. Used under license. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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