Chicago's Stickney Wastewater Treatment Plant Is the Crappiest Place on Earth

Illustration for article titled Chicago's Stickney Wastewater Treatment Plant Is the Crappiest Place on Earth

Chicago and its outlying suburbs create 1.5 billion gallons of wastewater every day. Since this isn't the 1880s anymore and you can't just let the effluence run back into Lake Michigan, you've got to clean it. Here. At the biggest wastewater treatment plant on Earth.


The Stickney Water Reclamation Plant is located on 570 acres of Cicero, Il, just southwest of Chicago. That's big enough to warrant having its own railway—which it does. Processing upwards of 1.2 billion gallons per day (up from 787 million gallons/day in 2008), it serves 2.38 million people over 260 square miles including central Chicago and 43 suburban communities. It is one of six wastewater treatment plants and 23 pumping stations in the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago (MWRDGC). The Sanitary District has seven sectors, each delivering their bounty to one of the seven treatment plants via the sewers.

The MWRDGC is also charged with maintaining approximately 76 miles (122 km) of waterways in the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal, which connects the Atlantic Ocean and Great Lakes with the Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico.

The full Stickney facility is split into two plants—a western plant which entered service in 1930 and a southwest portion that opened nine years later. Stickney's maximum capacity is 1.4 billion gallons (though it regularly operates at a lower rate) if all 166 processing tanks are in use. Needless to say, keeping an operation like this flowing smoothly isn't nearly as easy as flushing the john.

When wastewater enters the plant at one of two locations, the first phase physically removes contaminants, screening debris that might clog the machines down-flow—either large non-biological items or stuff like sand and grit. These materials are dumped in a sanitary landfill after being washed.

The water then flows into a primary settling tank where most of the heavier solids slowly sink to the bottom while oils, grease, and lighter waste float to the top. In these tanks, revolving skimmers continually collect the solid waste at the bottom and the oily film on the top.

The second phase employs a series of tanks and a rather large population of micro-organisms. These bacteria feast upon the remaining biological compounds and convert the waste into a form that's easier to separate from the water. The first tanks are aerated to provide sufficient oxygen for the microbes to grow, eat and multiply.


The second tank separates the bacteria culture from the treated water. Here the bacteria clump together and sink to the bottom, where they are removed. Eighty-five percent of these cultures are then recycled to seed the next batch of cleaning tanks.

From here the treated water is either discharged to the Sanitary and Ship Canal, or, if officials want to get the last five percent of poop out of the wastewater, it'll go to the third stage of cleaning.


During the tertiary phase, the water is further filtered, ammonia and other specific contaminants are removed, and sometimes bacteria are destroyed that may cause human fatalities. According to the MWRDGC, 95-percent-clean water can actually be deposited into a river or stream without any adverse environmental impacts and that this water is even cleaner than the river water it's being dumped into (note to self: don't drink from Chicago-area streams). In all, the entire cleaning process takes a bit less than 12 hours.

Now, what to do with all of that crap that was mechanically removed in phase one? Those bio-solids, more politely known as sludge or residuals, are first broken down in huge anaerobic digestion tanks. They are then centrifugally separated from any remaining water, then dried "and aged" in large outdoor beds. Finally, the shit-sheets are hauled off to be recycled.


Golf courses, sod farms, street medians and parks all use bio-solids to maintain their lush covering (remember that when you're rolling around in Lincoln Park). Fulton County's Sanitary District actually reclaimed 15,000 acres that had previously been a strip mine by leveling the area and "spiking" the barren soil with sludge to reintroduce nutrients into the soil. The land is now used for agriculture.

[Water-Technology - Water and Wastewater - - The Center for Land Use Interpretation - Metropolitan Water Reclamation District - Tapped Water]


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As a civil engineer who designs these systems, I really appreciate the article. The description of how this works is pretty accurate (except the "human fatalities" part — someone might get sick from too much exposure to wastewater treated to secondary levels, but death is highly unlikely). The general public is not sufficiently informed on how complex these systems are and how effective they are. That makes it hard for them to accept the cost of sewer rates, the occasional smell of the treatment plant, or the safety and reliability of the systems. When governments propose recycling wastewater or treated sludge, there is often outcry. More education is the key. Education helps the public get over the yuck factor and appreciate and trust the effort being put into wastewater treatment and recycling.

If anyone gets the opportunity to tour a wastewater plant, I'd highly recommend it. Yeah they stink, and parts of it are pretty gross, especially the front end where the large debris are screened out. When you see the debris conveyor go by on its way to the trash bin, you get to count how many guys in town got laid last night (at least those who flush their protection down the toilet afterwards, which I always found odd). But hey, you might find a $20 bill in there. Ok, sorry, I had to throw in a little gross humor for the Giz crowd. But I'm not exaggerating.

But once you get past that part, you'll be pretty amazed at the amount of equipment and technology involved. The biological treatment part is interesting too, because it works in a way that's similar to brewing beer or making wine (culture the right bacteria and let it do the work for you, breaking down something you don't want into something you do want). The last few steps in the plant are not gross - the water gets cleaner and cleaner as pollutants get removed in a step-by-step fashion. And the water that comes out at the end is surprisingly clean. At some of the newer, higher-tech plants that make water suitable for recycling, it can be crystal-clean, indistinguishable from tap water. You'll see a lot of pipes, valves, electronic instruments, control computers, a full laboratory, and many professionals running around taking care of things. It's impressive.

As the planet gets more and more populated, we're going to have to get better and better at doing this, and keep pushing the level of treatment higher and higher. And we'll need to reuse the water.