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The Chicago River: Reflected glory

THE old-timers down by Bubbly Creek were hoping to land catfish for dinner. On a sunny afternoon they were fishing on a southern fork of the Chicago River made famous by Upton Sinclair in his social-realist novel of 1906, “The Jungle”. Sinclair described how offal and waste from the meatpacking industry had created a river so vile that putrid gas bubbled up from the bottom and made the river literally combustible. Today, the river hardly ever bubbles but the pollution remains so serious that the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has ordered the state of Illinois to clean it up. Earlier this month, the EPA and the state finally agreed over how clean the river should be.Until recently the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRD)—the agency responsible for dealing with the city’s sewage and storm water—had always insisted that the river was little more than a series of canals for shipping and drainage of storm water and municipal effluent. The previous head of the MWRD fought long and hard against tough and expensive water-quality standards. Most memorably, he once argued that if the water were made cleaner, accidental drownings would increase.In the end sense prevailed and Chicago will finally lose the unwelcome distinction of being the only big American city that fails to disinfect its sewage. The MWRD, one of the world’s largest…

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