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Chicago Tour Showcases Garbage

August 22, 2005

CHICAGO (AP) _ Smelly sludge sewage fields and landfills aren’t the usual stuff of tours in a city that likes to show off its architecture and lakefront parks.

But people are paying $7 to see some of Chicago’s less desirable spots on a ``Down in the Dumps″ tour of more than a dozen garbage sites including a waste water treatment plant, recycling center and landfills.

The nearly three-hour bus tour of the far South Side _ where landfills rise up like rolling hills _ is a chance for residents, environmentalists and visitors to learn more about what happens to garbage once it leaves their trash cans.

``We see it, we smell and we wanted to know what all this is,″ said Bill Serckie, who took the tour on a recent weekend with his wife, Patty.

The couple has lived for 18 years near the garbage-filled landfills that dot the area along Interstate 94 near the Illinois-Indiana border, but like many of the 30 other tour-goers had never driven down the potholed back roads to see them up close.

``The tour makes you want to be more involved in the community and know what’s going on,″ Serckie said.

The tour, conducted twice this summer, will be offered again in the fall. It’s organized by the Southeast Environmental Task Force, a conservation group that wants to preserve open space and make sure more landfills don’t sprout up.

The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency says the area already has more than a dozen landfills and hazardous waste sites.

``It’s an area that was once a beautiful wetland and all that was trashed beginning in the 1940s and 1950s when it became a natural dump site,″ said Stan Komperda, an IEPA project manager.

Most of the landfills on the tour no longer accept garbage because of a city moratorium that went into effect in 1984, said the group’s president and tour guide Tom Shepherd.

Two of the dormant landfills are among the highlights of the tour. One is a grazing area for 64 goats and the other has been turned into a golf course.

The goats are helping to turn the methane-producing, 170-foot landfill into a wildlife habitat, the IEPA’s Komperda told visitors on the tour.

``We decided to give the goats a shot last year and they have been spectacular,″ he said. ``The goats ignore prairie plants but eat the weeds, which lets the light in and helps the prairie plants.″

Shepherd joked about how the landfills are often given tranquil monikers, including being named after lakes and prairies.

``These landfills are given these nice names to give you the image that if you’ve never seen one before you might think it’s a nice place,″ Shepherd said.

Mild weather helped keep the smells to a minimum on the tour, but the odor coming from a water treatment plant drew a collective ``Ewwwww″ from the tour-goers.

``You can usually smell it through the whole region but you don’t usually get to see it,″ Shepherd said.

The plant, operated by Chicago’s Metropolitan Water Reclamation District, treats water for the city and 124 nearby communities.

Because of security measures put in place after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, tour-goers had to be content with a drive around the parking lot because they couldn’t go inside the plant.

So far about 130 people have taken the tour, which is advertised on the group’s Web site and through other environmental groups in the state. Brian Rich of Chicago brought his 5-year-old son, Elliot, on the tour so he could start learning about environmental issues.

``We recycle at home and I care about the environment,″ Rich said. ``But unfortunately, I think a lot of people are complacent about environmental issues.″

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On the Net:

Southeast Environmental Task Force: www.setaskforce.org

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