The "Wasting Our Waterways" report ranks Illinois as the 13th worst U.S. state for the total volume of toxic industrial releases to waterways.
At the national level, polluting facilities dumped 206 million pounds of harmful chemicals into American waterways in 2012, according to the report. And some 8.39 million pounds of toxic pollution were discharged into the Great Lakes watershed. Ammonia, chromium and lead are among the chemicals released into Illinois' waterways, according to the report.
Toxic chemicals dumped into smaller Illinois waterways and water bodies that feed into Lake Michigan pose a threat to the health of the lake, said Lisa Nikodem, campaign director with the Environment Illinois Research & Education Center.
"With facilities dumping so much pollution, we should not be surprised that Lake Michigan can be unsafe for swimming and fishing," she said. "We should be outraged. The need to protect the lake is clear and pressing."
Here's more from Nikodem about the report and suggestions on how to protect the public and the environment from toxic releases:
State Rep. Robyn Gabel (D-Evanston), a member of the legislature's green caucus, joined Nikodem and other environmentalists in releasing the new report during a news conference at Chicago's North Avenue beach Thursday morning.
"Lake Michigan is a priceless natural resource for millions of Chicagoans and Illinoisans who depend on it for drinking water, boating and recreational fishing," Gabel stressed. "The lake is extremely important for Illinois' economy and the health of its people. We need to continue to protect Lake Michigan so it can continue to be a resource for all of us."
The biggest water polluter in Illinois was the Tyson Fresh Meats animal slaughtering facility in Hillsdale. The facility discharged nearly 2.6 million pounds of toxic pollution into the Lower Rock River watershed in 2012, the report showed.
As Progress Illinois has previously reported, large-scale release of animal waste at concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs), commonly called factory farms, is also a big contributor to Illinois waterway pollution. At the local level, the state is currently working to implement new regulations and stronger pollution controls for cattle, hog and chicken operations, which often house thousands of animals at a time.
In order to curb toxic chemical releases to waterways, the new report recommends that state and federal policies "move industrial polluters away from the use of toxic chemicals, in favor of safe alternatives." Restoring protections in the Clean Water Act for all waterways in Illinois and across the nation should also be part of the solution, Nikodem said.
"The Clean Water Act was intended to eliminate water pollution by 1985, but due to a couple bad Supreme Court decisions in cases brought by big polluters, we now have loopholes and ambiguities in the Clean Water Act," she explained.
As a result, the drinking water of 1.6 million Illinois residents is "at risk of having no protection from pollution under the Clean Water Act," Nikoden stressed.
In an effort to address the issue, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers jointly proposed a new rule in March designed to clarify which U.S. waters are subject to protections under the Clean Water Act. Environmentalists say the proposed rule would be a big step in restoring Clean Water Act protections for streams, wetlands and others waters in Illinois and other states.
"Unfortunately, practically every polluting industry on the planet is fighting tooth and nail to stop these vital clean water protections," Nikodem stressed. "And looking at the data from our report today, you can see why."
"The most important thing we can do for Illinois and across the country is to restore these critical Clean Water Act protections," she added. "That will not only decrease agricultural pollution and industrial pollution in Illinois, but will also protect the greatest resource that we depend on, which is Lake Michigan."
The public comment period on the proposed rule by the EPA and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is currently open and will run through October 20. The Environment Illinois Research & Education Center, Nikodem said, is teaming up with "farmers, small businesses and thousands of ordinary Illinoisans to make sure our voices for clean water are heard in Washington, D.C."
Shannon Konczal, owner of Justafew Acres, a certified natural farm in Herscher, Illinois, said it is imperative that the proposed rule becomes reality.
"As a small, sustainable farm, it's important that everything we use is of the best possible quality," said Konczal, whose three-and-a-half acre farm does not use herbicides, pesticides or synthetic fertilizers. "One of the most important parts of that is clean water ... If these loopholes in the Clean Water Act are not addressed, it will affect me as a small farmer first by putting the quality of my products at risk."
"Water is critical to our farms and it affects everything that we make," she added. "Everything you put on a tomato plant is going to end up on your plate. If our dairy cow was given polluted water, it would affect her milk, and it's going to end up on your breakfast table."