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Getting to the bottom of Chicago's deep tunnel

Chicago's deep tunnel is one of the most spectacular public works projects ever undertaken. But the pricetag for this potential world wonder is huge, and keeps getting larger. Some people are afraid it won't work. Others say the gargantuan problems created by Chicago's overflowing sewers need a gargantuan solution and the deep tunnel is it.

By ROBERT J. McCLORY

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ASK anyone in the Chicago metropolitan area what they think of TARP and they'll usually say something like this: "TARP? Oh, yeah, TARP. That's the big thing they're building under the ground that's going to cost so much money, that's supposed to clean up the Chicago River. Isn't it? Well, anyhow, I'm against it. At least I think I am. . . ."

Most folks can't tell you what the TARP initials stand for, and their perception of its purposes, costs, virtues and limitations is always murky and usually hostile. That is certainly understandable. TARP has been debated, discussed, praised and ridiculed for so many years that ordinary mortal minds tend to boggle at its mention.

TARP is the Tunnel and Reservoir Plan of the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago (MSD), which oversees waste disposal and water purification for the 8 million people, the 54 communities and the thousands of industries in its 365 square miles of territory. The project has been on the way since the late 1960's when Richard Ogilvie, then president of the Cook County Board; Clint Keifer, head of the Chicago Department of Sewers and Sanitation; Vinton Bacon of the MSD; and a variety of other political leaders and sewage experts decided to answer once and for all an age-old question: how do you get rid of the tons and tons of human wastes produced every day by an enormous and growing urban population, especially when as is the case in the Chicago area that population is living in a virtual swamp which has been covered from end to end with concrete?

The proposed answer was a huge underground system to collect and store rain and sewage until the water could be treated, rendered relatively harmless and sent gurgling on down to the Mississippi. According to Water and Wastes Engineering Magazine, TARP may represent "the most ambitious municipal water pollution and flood control efforts" ever undertaken in U.S. history. It has even been called a project on the scale of the Roman aqueducts, the Egyptian pyramids and the Great Wall of China.

Imagine a tunnel 35 feet in diameter with a wall of concrete insulation around it a foot thick, a tunnel so spacious that three full-size locomotives can sit in it comfortably side by side. The thing is carved out of bedrock some 250 feet below the surface of the earth, and it extends for 110 miles, the equivalent of the distance from Chicago to Bloomington. That is TARP I, the first and major component, which was begun in 1975 and is supposed to be completed along with a battery of accompanying pumping stations by 1985 at an estimated cost of $1.95 billion.

TARP II, an additional 25 miles of connected reservoirs for holding greater quantities of sewage and rainwater, is to be built between 1983 and 2003 at a cost of $900 million (in 1978 dollars).

So far, 15 miles of TARP I have been bored and dynamited out of the dolomite rock that lies 25 stories beneath the Chicago River bed north and south of the downtown area. Contracts have been awarded for another47 miles of the project, and more than $1 billion of the cost of this first phase has either been spent or firmly committed.

Splitting the bill for all this labor, is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) which is picking up 75 percent of the tab, and the MSD which is paying 25 percent. Either way, the money is coming out of the pockets of the taxpayers and their offspring. Not surprisingly, the most recurring hassles over TARP have to do with money. The U.S. General Accounting Office(GAO) completed a detailed, six-volume study of the project last spring at the request of

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Sen. Charles H. Percy and decided that IARP is far too expensive and might not even do what it is supposed to do when completed. In fact, claimed the GAO, TARPs I and II will cost more than the Alaskan pipeline: the final price tag on the project will be $ 11 billion and not the less-than-$3-billion figure estimated by the MSD. Exactly how top level scientists and accountants an be $8 billion apart on the same project is just one of the many mysteries of TARP.

The past

Another mystery is why this colossus was conceived and born in the first place. To understand that, a bit of history is necessary. In the summer of 5, Chicago was hit with a cholera epidemic which killed 90,000 persons. The source of the disease was evident. The city's sewage and rainwater both ran into the smelly Chicago River which emptied into increasingly polluted Lake Michigan which, in turn, provided Chicago with drinking water. The tontaminated water was, in effect, poisoning the city's people with their own waste.

In response to this and similar epidemics in the next few years, the MSD was established. By 1900 it had built a series of locks and canals which actually reversed the normal flow of the Chicago River. Instead of dropping its load in Lake Michigan, the river now carried it the other way, into the Illinois River system and the Mississippi.

Everyone marveled at this technical achievement, but with the passage of years and the rising population of the city, the solution proved temporary. In 1954 and again in 1957, the river overflowed its banks in the downtown area, flooding the streets and wetting the shoes of important politicians, bankers and business people. A contingency plan was adopted permitting the locks to be opened when the river reached dangerous heights so the overflow could run temporarily into Lake Michigan instead of down State Street. But this was, at best, a stopgap measure.

MSD technologists began working on a better solution. Following Daniel (Burnham's advice to "make no small plans," they eventually produced TARP.

At the same time, the U.S. Congress was passing pieces of legislation like the Clean Water Act of 1965 and the Water Pollution Control Act of 1972, which were aimed at making the nation's waterways "drinkable and swimmable" by the year 2000. The first federal efforts focused on the so-called "point sources" of pollution: the easily identified factories, mills, treatment plants, even oceangoing vessels all of which were exuding tons of crud into waterways, lakes and oceans every year. The second campaign was aimed at harder to spot but far more pervasive "nonpoint sources": everything from car exhaust and pesticides to cigarette wrappers and spilled gasoline washed off of sidewalks, streets and parking lots whenever it rains. Added to this, are incredible quantities of human excrement from overflowing sewers. Although government crackdowns on steel mills, sewage treatment plants and other notorious point sources have been reasonably effective, the nation's major waterways are still not particularly drinkable or swimmable. Better than half the country's water pollution, concluded the USEPA, is coming from those elusive nonpoint sources.

That is why USEPA officials from the beginning took a great interest in TARP. It was so ambitious that it might prove a model for nationwide pollution control in the 21st century. Also, it was acknowledged, if the Chicago area could be effectively purified, then pollution control measures could work almost anywhere.

The present

In the city of Chicago and in many of its larger suburbs, there is a combined sewer system. That means both rain water and raw sewage go into the same sewers, are treated at one of the six MSD treatment plants in the area, and sent into the Illinois River waterway. The plant in suburban Stickney, for example, is the largest in the world and can handle one billion gallons a day. The foul fecal matter filtered out at Stickney and at other plants is aerated and treated with chemicals until the material stabilizes and turns into less noxious sludge. The sludge, approximately 1,500 wet tons a day, is then transported on MSD barges down to Fulton County near Peoria where it is used to fertilize the 16,000 acres of reclaimed strip mined land under cultivation by the MSD.

The current system works smoothly and without a hitch, explained Frank Dalton, deputy chief for the MSD and a leading apostle of the TARP concept, until it starts to rain. "You see," said Dalton, whose descriptions are both imaginative and stomach curdling, "whenever the MSD area is hit with a quarter of an inch or more of rain, the sewers are immediately so overloaded that the treatment plants cannot handle the demand, and untreated sewage is spewed out into the sanitary canal, the Chicago River and the other outlets."

"How often does this happen?" you may wonder.

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"Every four days on the average," said Dalton, "all year round. And every time it happens, the amount of stuff that goes into the water is the equivalent of four million people discharging their bodily wastes right into the river. Let me put it another way. It's as though one million people every day of the year, including Christmas, go down and deposit their urine and crap in the old waterways. That is what is occurring right now, and it's a lot of pollution any way you slice it."

That is precisely where the big tunnel comes in. Once it is operative, TARP I will become a second Chicago River with a capacity four times that of the present one. Overflows of raw sewage

The project might prove a model for nationwide pollution control in the 21st Century

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into waterways and backups into homes will be cut by 80 percent or more, according to the MSD. When TARP II is finished, the experts predict only a few hours of possible backup every 20 years a virtual paradise situation for fish, swimmers and homeowners with carpeted basements.

Given the problem and the proposed solution,

an observer might wonder why there is so much public and private grousing about the project. There are several reasons.

The cost

Every time the major metropolitan media carry a story about TARP, the public learns the bill has gone up by several million (or billion) dollars. Part of this bloating is due to unavoidable inflation, but not all. Originally priced at under $2 billion, the real cost will be in the neighborhood of $7.3 billion, said the GAO last year. And in the latest detailed GAO report, it's up to around $11 billion.

Newspapers like the Chicago Sun Times regularly doubt "whether reaching the destination is worth the price of the ticket," especially when "the dratted thing may not be finished for another two decades." When the GAO strongly suggested the project be scrapped, Sen. Percy enumerated all the pressing matters those billions could go for: revitalizing neighborhoods, developing public transportation and creating jobs for unemployed inner city youth.

Nicholas Melas, MSD president, retorted that TARP is a response to a congressional mandate, was developed with input from the nation's best environmental talent and has been duly approved by local governments and citizen groups in the MSD area. The GAO's answer to a major national problem, said Melas, "is to live with dirty waterways, attempt to keep the filth out of your own basement, while increasing it in your neighbor's, and to periodically add pollution to Lake Michigan our regional water supply."

If the GAO thinks the USEPA standards are too stringent, it should go argue with Congress which imposed them in the first place, suggested Melas, and not with the USEPA or MSD which are only trying to carry them out.

"The GAO has been deliberately misleading people about costs ever since the project started," said Dalton. "Its only mission seems to be cutting costs, not weighing objectives."

Dalton discounted GAO's $11 billion estimate, since it included in the overall cost the price of sewage treatment plants, modernization of sewers and the purchase of other equipment which communities in the Chicago area would eventually need in order to use TARP fully. Thus, he said, the GAO figure is something like inflating the price of a new car by tacking on the cost of all the gas and oil it is likely to use in its lifetime.

The GAO also included in its estimate the interest MSD would have to pay on the project if it had to borrow from conventional lenders. But since its share of the bill comes from tax revenues, the inclusion of mythical interest figures is totally unreasonable, said Dalton.

The need

Aside from cost, the most troubling questions about the project concern its value and impact. While the MSD confidently assures inquirers that TARP will clean up metropolitan water, other experts are seriously wondering how necessary it is to make the Chicago River fishable and swimmable. For example, health officials for years assumed that a high level of fecal coliform (a bacillus released from the excrement of humans and other warmblooded animals) was hazardous when found in drainage canals because the bacillus was a known source of hepatitis. Now federal and state environmentalists are saying fecal coliform isn't that potent after all, at least not sufficiently dangerous to justify an outpouring of | billions of dollars.

Other critics have suggested TARP may actually do more harm than good if dirty water stored in the tunnels and reservoirs should seep into the metropolitan area's water table.

Harry Weese, a respected Chicago architect, charged that TARP will actually contribute to further stagnation of the Chicago River since storm water overspill which now enters the stream at many points and to some extent, cleanses i^ will be "diverted to the world's largest subterranean sump pump." In fact, argued Weese, it is an error to regard the Chicago River as a real river and therefore subject to clean water mandates. Because its flow has been reversed, he said, it is actually a drainage canal.

Dalton, however, insisted the public is "way ahead" of the critics and will not tolerate a delay or suspension of the project. "The bottom line on this is flooded basements," he said, waving the critical, six-volume GAO study.The final volume contains detailed maps showing that extensive flooding occurs in dozens of suburbs during even moderate summer rain storms. In Skokie, for example, about 90 percent of the streets and homes flood once or twice a year, even though the majority of owners have installed protection devices such as check valves and overhead sewers.

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"The people won't accept this situation indefinitely," said Dalton, "and they know TARP is what can stop it."

But aren't there cheaper and easier ways to get the job done? Ever since the Jeep tunnel concept was publicized, a plethora of imaginative pollution control measures has been submitted by professionals and amateurs.

One of these called for storage of storm water oh roofs throughout the MSD area and the gradual release of the later into the existing sewer system. Another involved the building of street and alley canals to store and channel rainwater, turning Chicago into another Venice. One suggested the building of immense sludge lagoons in the city's parks and the use of the sludge to fertilize local garden projects. Still another would halt strain on the sewer system by surrounding homes with dozens of rain barrels to capture the excess. Other complex proposals, largely unintelligible to the layperson, include seepage basins, pits and beds, lattice blocks, backflow regulators, berms and swales, dutch drains, plaza ponding and greenbelts. In its critical assessment, the GAO discussed most of these measures and suggested their use, either singly or in combinations, as realistic alternatives to TARP.

Dalton said every known "simpler" way of cleaning water and eliminating flood problems has been scrutinized by MSD experts, and all have been found either inordinately expensive or so insanely impractical as to be worthless. The cost of constructing an adequate system of street and alley canals would be about $85 billion, said Dalton, or almost eight times even the GAO's disputed estimate of TARP's cost. Similarly, an MSD analysis of rooftop storage concluded that it would cost $23 billion to do what the deep tunnels would accomplish.

The problem in such comparisons is that the ordinary citizen is ill-equipped to analyze critically the relative merits of the various solutions and the accuracy of the cost estimates. The League of Women Voters, one of the few independent organizations that has monitored TARP from the start, agrees substantially with Dalton. Said Joanna Hoelscher, the league's natural resources chairperson, "As far as we can see, TARP is the only cost-effective solution to massive pollution in a major population center. Small neighborhood technologies such as recycling sludge for local gardens may appeal to ecologists, but they're not effective ways of disposing of tons of waste." In addition, said Hoelscher, there is little doubt that MSD has the greatest supply of environmental talent in the state possibly in the nation.

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Also impressed with the giant MSD project is the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission (NIPC), which is attempting to coordinate pollution control in the six-county area which includes MSD and dozens of smaller sanitary districts. In its recently released 1,800-page "Areawide Water Quality Management Plan" (compiled at a cost of $7.9 million), NIPC gave high marks to the TARP concept and low grades to communities content to live with the status quo. The plan has not endeared NIPC to environmental planners outside MSD boundaries, many of whom see MSD's and NIPC's friendly relationship as a first step toward super metropolitan government. The NIPC plan is unfair, charged Terry Sedik, a Lake County environmental planner, because it gives MSD exclusive authority to veto any regional proposals and because it sets "more stringent water cleanliness goals" outside the MSD borders than within them. "That's absolutely untrue," replied Dalton. "Our goal is zero pollution. You can't get any more stringent than that."

The scandals

A final source of controversy is the awarding of construction contracts. Because of the immense amounts of money involved as well as the high concentrations of black and Spanish-speaking people in the MSD area, there has been consistent pressure on the part of community groups to guarantee a sizable share of the business to minority-

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owned firms or to white firms with substantial minority work forces. But it took years of complaints from organizations like the Chicago Urban League and some confrontations between MSD commissioners themselves before the present arrangement calling for minorities to comprise 20 percent of all projects was worked out.

In addition, there has been a steady stream of complaints that businesses with links to the Democratic party are getting breaks on certain phases of the project.

The most recent hassle involved charges by the USEPA's Office of Civil Rights that a so-called minority-owned electric company holding subcontracts totaling $4.3 million had practically no minority members on its board or work force and had ignored appeals from civil rights groups to recruit and hire qualified minorities. Ironically, the owner of this peculiar firm, Tunnel-Apache Electric Co., is Noah Robinson, half brother of civil rights leader Rev. Jesse Jackson.

Such improprieties notwithstanding, Dalton said TARP's record is good and will get better. "Overall, this job is essentially scandalproof," he said. "The specifications are so clear, there isn't much room for deviation, sneaky deals or special arrangements."

With so many conflicting voices, the general public's uneasiness is not likely to go away. People instinctively fear what they can't see, especially when its costs, dimensions and operations are barely imaginable. They distrust experts who speak today with solemn assurance only to be utterly contradicted tomorrow by equally qualified experts. They tend to be hostile toward super plans, super governmental entities, and especially super taxation.

But TARP will probably go on boring its way through the rock anyway. There is no substantial, sustained opposition to it, and even its fiercest critics aren't any more convincing than its ardent supporters. Besides that, noted one veteran TARP observer recently, "when all is said and done, there's still thousands of folks out there who would sell their soul for a dry basement."□

On the staff of the National Catholic Reporter, Robert J. McClory has also written extensively for other publications and is author of the book, The Man Who Beat Clout City.

8/ November 1979/ Illinois Issues


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