Cleaner but Not Clean
Part 5 of "Water Resources in Illinois"
Magazine introduction: Illinois' commitment to clean water led to the creation of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. The mandate given this new agency was "to restore, maintain and enhance the purity of the waters of this State." Then, in 1972, Congress declared a nationwide commitment to clean water when it amended the federal Water Pollution Control Act. The new amendments proclaimed that U.S. streams and lakes would be "swimmable and fishable" by 1983, and that by 1985 no pollutants would be discharged into the nation's waters.
As these federal deadlines approach, however, it has become increasingly apparent that a legislated commitment does not a clean stream make. The chemistry of water and its possible pollutants is as complex and dynamic as the laws that attempt to control its contamination. The following article, fifth in a series on water resources in Illinois funded by The Joyce Foundation, examines what the state must do to protect its precious water from point and nonpoint sources of pollution, sewage disposal and the new breed of chemical pollutants.
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In 1972 Congress made two promises, in the form of amendments to the federal Water Pollution Control Act. One was that there would be "zero discharge" of pollutants into the nation's waters by 1985. The other was that U.S. lakes and streams—many of which were then emphatically neither—would be made "swimmable and fishable" by 1983.
Many words have been used to describe this agenda in the decade since its adoption. "Ambitious" is one of them. "Utopian" and "impossible" are two others.
Illinois' own commitment to clean water antedates that of Congress, acquiring its present shape in 1970 when the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) and its adjunct agencies were signed into being. Its goals, as stated in the Illinois Environmental Protection Act, were scarcely less ambitious than those of Congress: "To restore, maintain and enhance the purity of the waters of this State."
"Maintain" is a promise the agency can claim to have kept. Reviewing the progress of the 1970s, the agency notes with some pride that 95 percent of the major municipal polluters and 69 percent of the major industrial polluters in the state are complying with water pollution control regulations. As a result, says the IEPA, further degreda-tion of the state's water has "virtually been halted."
Yet Illinois' waters remain only ambiguously fishable or swimmable. Pollution from substances for which no regulations yet exist, and pollution for which no single source can be identified and pollution from activities outside the reach of regulators still poison Illinois' waters. It is not fair to say that the state's water is still as dirty as it was 10 years ago. Rather, it is dirty in different ways.
The job of cleaning up 2,700 major lakes, 13,750 miles of streams and thousands of square miles of underground water reservoirs would be difficult enough without water's generous chemical nature. Water is a near-universal solvent, and often what it does not carry away as the baggage of hitchhikers on eroded soil particles, it carries in solution. Virtually everything that humans use and discard can find its way eventually into some body of water, somewhere, and usually does. Even a generic listing of potential pollutants would fill pages; there are several thousand chemicals in industrial use in Illinois alone. Many of these substances are transformed by their journeys through the ecosystem, and others by the action of bacteria, sunlight or by chemical interaction with other passengers.
In short, clean water in an industrialized, urbanized, agriculturized state like Illinois doesn't stay clean very long. The 1972 federal clean water amendments said "fishable and swimmable." They said nothing about "easy."
The body of water pollution law and regulations is as complex as the problems it addresses. Typically the intent of the regulations is to stop pollution at its source, before it enters a vulnerable water supply. This is true whether that source is a farm field, a sewage treatment plant, a garbage dump or a factory discharge pipe. As early as 1967 Illinois set standards for the maximum levels of various contaminants allowable in effluent from various single "point sources" such as sewage plants. (These were updated and made consistent with the new federal standards later.) Later, further standards required the pretreatment of certain industrial wastes discharged into sewage treatment plants, wastes which might otherwise impair the operation of those plants.
These effluent standards were designed to help surface waters—so-called "receiving water"—maintain their own standards of cleanliness. A second set of stream standards were also promulgated, stringent enough that not only natural aquatic life could be sustained but that the use of the stream for the range of normal human purposes—boating, cooling water and so on—would not be impaired. There were a few exceptions. Standards for water withdrawn for drinking and food processing were more stringent (to protect the public) as were those applied to Lake Michigan (to protect Lake Michigan). Standards for certain streams in the Chicago area judged to be hopelessly polluted were made less stringent.
Simple enough in outline. But scientific evidence upon which standards are based continues to evolve, as do treatment technologies. Sampling and analytical techniques are constantly being refined (usually with the unhappy result that researchers are constantly finding things in water they didn't know were there). The tension between what is desirable and what is affordable has grown worse rather than better in 10 years. New kinds of pollutants crop up faster than public agencies can prescribe against them. As pollution control becomes more complicated, so do the demands on equipment and the people who operate it. The demands on the political system—evidenced by disputes between industry and government, between Washington and Springfield, even between Springfield and municipalities over who pays how much for what and why—grow with the cost of control.
Indeed, so confused do the issues sometimes seem that it is easy to forget some of the triumphs of the water cleaners' science in Illinois in the last half-century. Illinois' water may not yet be "clean" in any of the commonly accepted senses of the word, measured in terms of what we may refer to as the four basic kinds of water pollution proscribed by the federal clean water laws of the 1970s, however, it is cleaner. Bacterial contamination (usually measured by concentrations of fecal coliform bacteria) was one obvious target. But water also may be soiled for a wide range of uses by a lack of dissolved oxygen. Accordingly, early limits were set for "biochemical oxygen demand" or BOD levels which result when excessive growth of organisms such as algae consume the available oxygen and render water stagnant.
These ruinous algae populations are fed by excessive amounts of nutrients such as nitrogen and ammonia which are washed into streams and lakes in the form of farm fertilizers or as an ingredient in sewage plant wastewater. More visibly, suspended solids (mainly silt) can cloud water, blocking sunlight and generally degrading aquatic habitats.
In addition, dissolved minerals which give some water its characteristic "hardness" can cause buildups of excessive scale inside pipes so severe that the pipes are rendered useless. The chemical constituents of water must be in approximate balance. Overly reactive or "aggressive" water can erode the protective scale inside water supply pipes and allow contamination of water by lead, zinc and copper from pipe walls.
One can infer the economic base of a state from a close study of its water. That is certainly true in Illinois. Of those substances and conditions in Illinois streams and lakes which are routinely in violation of standards, several — fecal coliform (from feedlots), ammonia-nitrogen (from feedlots and fertilizers), BOD—can be traced mostly or in part to agriculture. Others—lead and copper—are the result of industrial activity. In the southern part of the state, more than 400 miles of streams have been affected by acid drainage from coal mine wastes. Only a few of the pollutants endemic to Illinois waters (such as iron) may be said to be of natural origin.
Water treatment techniques
Fortunately, in the last 75 years or so an extensive catalog of water treatment techniques has been amassed to deal with these familiar problems in drinking water. Dissolved minerals may, by the addition of certain chemicals, be made to precipitate into a removable sludge. Odors resulting from high BOD levels can be eliminated by simply-adding oxygen or by filtering drinking water through activated carbon beds, and solids will settle out if allowed to stand.
Chlorination, of course, is the remedy of choice for the commoner waterborne disease organisms. Water-borne diseases were high on the list of killers in Illinois until well into this century. The arts of both water treatment and sewage disposal were rudimentary, and many communities drew upon the same water source for both.
Measured by reductions in the incidence of traditional waterborne disease, which is perhaps the most basic water quality criterion of all, Illinois' water earns high marks. Ira Markwood, manager of the IEPA's public water supply section, has said that there have been only three outbreaks of such disease in the state since 1970—a record Markwood attributed to increased professional training of water system operators and to improved sewage treatment. But, he warned, "The organisms are still around us, waiting for an opportunity to enter our water supplies."
Much of the credit for this happy-record must go to the massive efforts by Washington and the state in the 1970s to upgrade sewage treatment capacity in the state. To accomplish it, Congress authorized a mammoth non-military construction program second only to the interstate highway system in scale, which to date has consumed roughly $20 billion in federal funds alone.
The IEPA has called this construction grants program "the centerpiece of Illinois' water pollution control efforts." The USEPA has awarded $1.9 billion in federal grants to Illinois since 1972. Combined with state and local funds, these grants brought total spending for 220 new treatment plants and another 130 related projects to nearly $3 billion.
IEPA boasts that plants built under its construction grants program typically produce effluent which is less noxious than the minimum allowed by their discharge permits. Typical of this new generation treatment facility is the North Shore Sanitary District which, because it cared enough to dump the very best, in 1978 replaced eight small and inefficient treatment plants which used to empty into Lake Michigan with a new, $170 million system which now dumps a highly treated wastewater into the Des Plaines River.
Such improvements have helped enable IEPA to slow the headlong degradation of Illinois waters by the more mundane class of pollutant. But cleaner water is not necessarily clean water. Lake Michigan, to cite a happy-example, is no longer used as a septic tank by Chicago and suburbs. But the USEPA has counted 17 cities on the lake outside Illinois that dump essentially raw sewage into the lake. In 1972 Illinois brought suit against Milwaukee to stop such dumping; during a single, fairly typical episode in 1976, 646 million gallons were dumped.
Similar problems—along with several other things—emanate from East Chicago, Ind. Outmoded and ill-tended equipment at a plant there are among the reasons that city has repeatedly dumped millions of gallons of waste into the lake, wastes which exceed federal maximums for fecal coliform bacteria, cyanide and phosphorous and which have led to at least 17 beach closings in and around Chicago.
In some ways, cleaning up human wastes is easy, in spite of the expense. (It is the sheer volume of waste which so often balloons costs.) Very much trickier is preventing pollution from the so-called "nonpoint sources" such as farm fields or city streets. Early cleanup efforts focused on point sources; permits were required to discharge anything into any water, and in order to get permits dischargers had to meet effluent standards. By 1979 Illinois environmental officials were able to say, "Gross violations of water quality standards . . . due to point sources have been reduced." However, widespread violations of the standards for coliform bacteria, ammonia-nitrogen, dissolved oxygen and metals such as lead and iron continued, and most often "nonpoint source pollution is the major cause of water quality standards violations."
Like the state itself, nonpoint water pollution is urban and rural. In a state in which most of the land is farmed, it was perhaps inevitable that the IEPA should find that, measured by the miles of streams affected, farm-related pollution—chiefly in the form of eroded soil—is Illinois' most vexing water quality problem. Runoff into streams and lakes not only clouds water and chokes reservoirs. Soil particles also are the vehicles by which many pesticides and fertilizers move from fields into lake bottoms and streams.
There is some encouraging evidence that soil pollution from farms may be abating as farmers switch to reduced tillage methods. But cities add their own ingredients to the state's pollution brew, in the form of urban stormwater runoff. It is an irony typical of water policymaking that cities which must spend vast sums of public money to build one system to collect water must also spend vast sums on other systems to get rid of it. Storm sewer systems are designed to funnel rainwater off the streets and dump it quickly into handy nearby watercourses.
However, stormwater runoff is polluted, typically containing loads of oil and gasoline, heavy metals from engine exhausts, road salts, dirt, lawn fertilizers and weed killers, dog droppings—a cornucopia of crud. Given the large volumes of water involved and the relatively low concentrations of contaminants, however, treatment of such water remains (in a word commonly applied by engineers) "unrealistic."
Consider the impact of salt. The thousands of tons of de-icing salts which are sprinkled on Illinois streets and roads each winter don't evaporate with the coming of spring. Much of those chemicals settle into roadsides. But a lot of it is washed into sewers, from where it makes it way into receiving waters. In addition, salts used to be stored in open piles, where it leached into nearby sewers or open waterways. A USEPA survey released in 1982 showed that the levels of sodium and chlorides from road salts were up substantially in Lake Michigan and that the rate of increase was accelerating. At present rates, one Illinois environmental official predicted, Illinois will have "a great salt lake" in 2,400 years.
Luckily salt is one pollution problem that's easily solved. The Illinois Department of Transportation (IDOT) now gives road crews training in the use of salts, and both IDOT and many municipalities are storing salt in covered piles. (Such reforms may owe as much to accountants as ecologists; as much as 15 percent of an exposed salt pile can literally dissolve in a year.)
Overloaded sewer systems
Not all the pollution from urban nonpoint sources is so easily cured, unfortunately. There are 132 cities outside Chicago which have combined storm and sanitary sewer systems. During a rainstorm, the volume of water rushing through such systems is greater than the sewage treatment plants at their termini are able to handle. The stormwater with its incidental load of sewage is thus deliberately flushed into receiving waterways with little or no treatment.
A great many of the acute pollution episodes that occur around the state are the result of such overloading of combined sewer systems. Cities using combined systems can eliminate overloading by either expanding the capacity of their treatment plants, building separate sewer systems or building lagoons or some other reservoir in which stormwater could be temporarily held until it could be treated at a more leisurely pace after the clouds clear. Any homeowner who's guttered a house can appreciate how expensive it is to gutter a whole city; in Peoria, a series of "sumpholes" to store stormwater was expected to cost $40 million.
In Chicago a heavy rain so overloads treatment plants that (as one sanitary district official once colorfully phrased it) it is as if a million people defecated in the Chicago River. To cite just one of many recurring examples: In August the Chicago Park District had to close that city's beaches after the Chicago Metropolitan Sanitary District released overflow accumulated from a four-inch rainfall the previous day—overflow which contained 80 million gallons of untreated sewage.
An agency which once reversed the flow of a river is not likely to think small when confronted by such a dilemma. In 1972 the Metropolitan Sanitary District proposed the construction of 131 miles of tunnels which, along with surface reservoirs, would hold stormwater and aid flood control. Costs for the two-phase project (nicknamed "Deep Tunnel") have been estimated by the U.S. General Accounting Office to be in the $11 billion range. (See Illinois Issues, November 1979.)
IEPA officials regard combined sewer overflows as among the state's most pressing water quality problems. As the Peoria and Chicago examples suggest, solutions are not likely to be cheap. In 1981 the then-Illinois Institute of Natural Resources (since changed to the Department of Energy and Natural Resources) calculated the cost of complying with the IEPA's regulations on sewer overflows would cost communities outside Chicago about $476 million in capital improvements and another $72 million a year in combined operating costs. Costs of compliance in smaller towns could hit $1,200 per household, IINR warned, and concluded that there was no economic justification for the requirements.
Economics of pollution control
The costs and benefits of traditional sewage treatment, while not proven precisely, are at least plausible. The arithmetic of nonpoint pollution control does not yet always add up, however, because of the diffuse nature of the sources and the correspondingly diffuse responsibility for its control.
Indeed, the economics of water pollution control in general promise to be a preoccupation of the 1980s. The IEPA's water quality management plan, for instance, recommends the implementation of "best management practices" (BMP) to control nonpoint pollution only when those BMPs are "cost-effective [and] economically feasible." For example, a consultant once estimated that improved street sweeping needed to clean up Cham-paign-Urbana's stormwater runoff would cost those cities $1.8 million a year, a sum an IEPA spokesman admitted could not be justified by the modest public health protections it would buy.
The notion that sometimes cleaning up dirty water costs more than its worth underlies the "use-based" system of stream standards being developed by the IEPA. Unlike the general standards adopted in the early 1970s, use standards vary according to the uses to which a stream may be put. Sewage treatment plants and factories built on a river used for swimming, for example, will be expected to keep their effluent discharges cleaner than if they were dumping into, say, a drainage channel or barge canal.
The problem was that in the rush to establish its enforcement program in the mid-1970s, many official stream classifications—"agricultural," "fish and wildlife" and so on—were assigned without what the USEPA now admits was sufficiently realistic consideration of their potential. Under federal regulations, states may determine that these use classifications may be declared unattainable (and the applicable pollutant standards relaxed), if attaining them would require cleanup efforts of such magnitude that they would cause "substantial and widespread adverse economic impacts."
Students of environmental rulemaking need travel no farther than the East Branch of the DuPage River for an object lesson. That stream was originally classified by the IEPA as a recreational stream, even though roughly 40 percent of its flow consists of effluent from the 16 sewage treatment plants which line its banks. Because of this, effluent standards required to keep the East Branch clean enough to be "swimmable and fishable" are necessarily stringent. Plants are required to continuously chlorinate wastewater to disinfect it before it enters the East Branch.
Critics point out, however, that the East Branch is not deep enough for swimming, that past channelization has virtually wrecked it as a fish habitat, that the channel is too narrow for boating and that routine breakdowns in the treatment process in the plants that feed it (along with unpredictable storm water overflows) make strict adherence to standards for dissolved oxygen, suspended solids and ammonia virtually impossible.
As early as 1977 the IEPA proposed to the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB), the state's environmental rulemaking authority, that the rule requiring the chlorination of wastewater be scrapped unless such water is discharged 20 miles or less upstream from a public water supply or a beach. The IEPA argues the fecal coliform levels which chlorination is intended to reduce are not a reliable indication of water quality, that a link between elevated coliform levels and disease has yet to be proved, that the public health risks from chlorination's by-products may be greater than the bacteria it is supposed to suppress and that coliform populations which leave roughly 90 percent of the state's streams in violation of stream standards come not from treatment plants but from farm feedlots, septic tank fields and similar sources.
Moreover, chlorinating wastewater costs Illinois sewage systems an estimated $9 million a year. The issue has stirred feeling up and down the Illinois River especially. The City of LaSalle and Chicago's Metropolitan Sanitary District (both of which discharge ultimately into the Illinois) are for the change, while Peoria (which takes its drinking water from the same river) is opposed to it.
It is a fact, of course, that the water that goes down one person's toilet sooner or later comes out another person's tap. At LaSalle, fully 12 percent of the average flow of the Illinois River consists of effluent dumped into it by Chicago treatment plants. The reuse of water is fairly commonplace in industry, and during the drought in southern Illinois in 1981 the IEPA approved the use of certain treated sewage effluent for livestock watering. It has also been suggested that the dwindling deep sandstone aquifers which serve the Chicago suburbs might be recharged with such effluent. However, the IEPA insists that such recharged water be brought up to drinking water standards before it goes underground, a uselessly expensive process.
Another factor in the increasingly complicated calculations of cost and benefit is the fact that cleaning up pollution often causes pollution. Elgin's municipal water system has been using water softening techniques to rid its well water of what the USEPA regards as excessive levels of barium; that barium ended up in a sludgy residue which cost the city $1.4 million to store in a new disposal lagoon. And in the most publicized case, the Chicago Metropolitan Sanitary District in the early 1970s, began shipping its sludge 170 miles by barge to Fulton County, where it was applied to strip-mined land until hauling costs forced the abandonment of the project in 1982. Such sludge typically contains heavy metals and other contaminants, and objections to its use as fertilizer or fill have been voiced on that account.
Heavy metals, of course, are merely a few of that disturbingly large family of contaminants which are known or feared to be toxic to humans. Indeed, many are toxic at concentrations below those even detectable by many of the standard sampling techniques; persistent, they accumulate in the food chain. Many of them are not biodegradable and are removed incompletely if at all by conventional water treatment techniques.
In the fall of 1980 the USEPA published a list of 65 substances officially considered toxic and for the control of which specific standards would eventually be set. But government regulators do not even always know what to call the thousands of other chemicals being produced in the U.S. today, much less their human health effects (acting both singly and in combination, in high and low concentrations) over time.
What is known about some of these substances is disturbing. Indeed "toxics" promise to become the cholera and typhoid of the 1980s and 1990s. They constitute a chemical contagion as ubiquitous as those once-feared waterborne killers. The Illinois Legislative Investigating Commission has stated that Illinois is the nation's No. 2 producer of hazardous wastes. The IEPA reports that there was a record number of spills of hazardous substances in 1981—885, many of them minor—and that 350 of these episodes posed some threat to local water supplies.
In addition, instances of illegal dumping, improper landfilling and otherwise careless disposal are common. In the spring and summer of 1981 alone, for example, a diligent newspaper reader would have come across the following reports:
In April, local authorities discover two "midnight dumping" sites on Ogle County farms containing 1,500 gallons of industrial wastes. Bulldozers hurriedly built an earthern dike to keep the dumps' contents from seeping into a tributary of the Rock River.
In May, more than 300 barrels of industrial waste are found in a ravine near Freeport; some of the barrels are suspected of containing cyanide compounds.
In June, an illegal aerial spraying of the defoliant Agent Orange kills hundreds of fish in a Henderson County creek.
Also in June, a dumping site is discovered in a forest preserve in DuPage County. The wastes contain arsenic and mercury and are suspected of contributing to higher-than-normal levels of those toxics in the DuPage River downstream from the site.
In July, the IEPA sued the operator of a Wauconda landfill thought to have allowed boron and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) to seep into a tributary of a local water supply lake.
In September, the IEPA accused an oil refinery in Robinson of illegally discharging phenols, chromium, oil and other wastes into a nearby creek.
That same month the IEPA brought suit against an East St. Louis company for allowing unknown chemical residues from 12,000 discarded drums to escape.
Also in September a Henry County landfill operator is accused of dumping oil containing concentrations of PCBs up to six times higher than the federal maximum for such dumps.
It is important to note that no one died as a result of these incidents, nor even became seriously ill. Often waste was discovered soon enough to prevent its finding its way into water supplies. The only immediate threat to the public health was anxiety, confirming that sometimes what one reads in the newspaper is more harmful that what one drinks in the water.
PCBs and Waukegan Harbor
Still, the potential threats are real enough. Consider the case of PCBs. PCBs were widely used in the manufacture of electrical insulation and as a high-temperature lubricant. They were banned in the U.S. in 1976 after they were linked to cancer.
Unfortunately, PCBs are a persistent presence in Illinois despite the 1976 ban. Bottom sediments in the Chicago River, for instance, have been found to contain three times the PCBs considered safe. (This may not be as ominous as it sounds; many environmental experts regard the mud of lake and river bottoms as perhaps the best place to "store" vagrant PCBs, since they will be buried and thus removed from the food chain.)
The most celebrated instance of PCB poisoning in Illinois, however, occurred at Waukegan. A boat motor company there dumped roughly two million pounds of PCB-laden wastes into Waukegan Harbor in the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s. In the summer of 1982 the harbor was named Illinois' most hazardous toxic waste site by the IEPA. Fish taken from the harbor have dangerously high levels of the chemical in their flesh, making eating such fish risky. And the contamination is complicating harbor maintenance, since dredging might stir the bottom sediments allowing PCBs to migrate into Lake Michigan.
Then, in 1981, it was revealed that the same firm had paid to dispose of as much as eight million more pounds of PCB-contaminated wastes at various unrecorded land sites in northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin. A Lake County public health official, citing the possible poisoning of both local groundwater supplies and Lake Michigan from these sites, called the dumping "a ticking time bomb."
In 1980 Congress established a new program under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act intended to defuse such time bombs. The act set up a $1.6 billion national "superfund" to clean up the 400 worst toxic dumps. The IEPA has identified 28 superfund candidates in 17 counties around the state whose contents (quoting a disquieting agency description) are "toxic, reactive, corrosive, carcinogenic, ignitable or infectious." The USEPA is behind schedule in compiling its final list, but as of July 1982, four of these Illinois sites had been ruled eligible for super-fund funding. Waukegan Harbor—whose cleanup costs the IEPA estimates to be as much as $45 million—heads the list.
Ticking time bomb
Toxic wastes are especially troublesome when they enter groundwater. It used to be believed that aquifers were protected from man-made contamination by the intervening layers of soil and rock which covered them, layers which were assumed to function as a sort of natural water treatment system by filtering out contaminants. The earth does filter some contaminants (chiefly bacteria and sediment) from water as it percolates through upper soil layers. But many water-soluble pollutants are carried with the water on its subterranean travels.
Concentrations of naturally occurring minerals such as iron, manganese or calcium tend to increase with depth, for example. Water from the deepest aquifers in parts of Illinois is several times saltier than sea water because of its load of these dissolved minerals. (A new water supply well in Mount Prospect in suburban Chicago in 1981 was found to be so full of salt water that it had to be abandoned.)
These natural contaminants can give water a bad taste and complicate life on laundry day, but they are easily removed, and in any event pose more a nuisance than a threat to health. Unfortunately, unnatural substances move through groundwater in much the Same way. Virtually anything dumped in, spilled onto or buried beneath the earth can find its way eventually into groundwater. In its 1979 Water Quality Management Plan, the IEPA warns, "As disposal of wastes is directed away from air and streams, more pollutants are being placed on the land. . . . Unfortunately, many of the known types of groundwater pollution sources are not properly regulated and new types are being discovered as groundwater development increases."
Unhappily, such discoveries are being made all the time. Tons of wastes were interred in open dumps, porous gravel pits and sanitary landfills in the days before regulation. (One example of dozens: The Lake County Forest Preserve District, planning to flood an old gravel pit to make a lake, recently had to spend $85,000 to haul away paint residues which had been dumped into the pit 20 years ago.) Even landfills designed to accommodate hazardous wastes have been shown to leak much faster than expected in some cases. A Massachusetts disposal firm which had buried 200,000 barrels of assorted toxic wastes in a dump atop an abandoned coal mine near the Macoupin County town of Wilsonville was ordered in 1981 by the courts to remove it, at an estimated cost of $5 million. Traces of toxic ethane compounds were discovered in monitoring wells less than 10 feet from the dump just three and a half years after burial — a trip the designers (and the IEPA) had insisted would take at least 500 years.
The State of Illinois enforces an extensive permit system to control the disposal of toxic materials, although the Wilsonville episode revealed either that the system has imperfections (the IEPA view) or that the agency is not adequately enforcing it (the view of some legislators). Prior to 1980, when the rules were tightened, nearly three dozen toxic materials disposal sites operated in the state; today the number has been reduced to seven.
Congress, too, has taken steps to protect the nation's vulnerable groundwaters. In 1976 it passed the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act which set design and construction standards for toxic waste disposal sites (among other things). But the USEPA did not issue even preliminary regulations to implement that part of the act until July 1982. Official action to date, in other words, has not yet substantially amended the IEPA's own 1979 assessment of groundwater problems in Illinois. In the Water Quality Management Plan published that year, the agency acknowledged that there is not "a high degree of formal planning for the management of future groundwater quality and quantity." And, buried in the mud of bureaucratic prose is this warning: "Groundwater contamination problems can be expected to increase in the future. Those practices most likely to yield groundwater pollution have only been active over the last 30 or 40 years, a relatively short period of time in regard to groundwater movement. With time, contamination may spread horizontally and vertically and affect more surface streams and water supply wells."
If one listens closely, one can almost hear the bomb ticking.
In retrospect it seems that the ambitious goal of the seminal 1972 federal clean water amendments—to make U.S. waters swimmable and fishable by 1983—could only have been set by people who didn't yet know the real extent of water pollution problems. While it is true that in Illinois remarkable progress has been made in a mere decade in cleaning water fouled by a century of misuse, it is also true that it is mostly the easy problems which have been solved. Those that remain—toxics, groundwater contamination, nonpoint pollution—are anything but easy.
But the agencies made responsible for protecting the state's water resources — for all their admitted ignorance about some aspects of it — at least have learned something in 10 years about the extent of the problems, about the limits of technology and public budgets and scientific knowledge. Perhaps most importantly, they have learned how much they need to learn. ■