The Golden Gate Bridge is an amazing structure. Massive, sitting across a fault line, beautiful and elegant in a way that complements nature and the surrounding city. The Hoover Dam is enormous too. It holds back mind-boggling volumes of water. It makes electricity. It was built with architectural style as well as engineering grace. Both structures are fierce. One holds back calamitous volumes of water the other suspends vast swaths of wheeled humanity. They make commerce happen, they keep the lights on, the wheels moving and the gears cranking. They are clean, quiet, and amazing. They are additive processes. We take a spot with nothing, we add something and the spot is better for humanity. These structures always stand, tall and strong, fighting against and even subjugating the forces of nature. Saddling falling water, with bit and bridle, breaking nature’s like the spirit of a horse. Nations brag about these projects as signs of how they’ve arrived or why they should remain world powers.
Consider the anti-hero. The mild-mannered and the humble. The overlooked wallflower of history. The quiet girl at the cocktail party.
The Thornton Quarry is world’s largest open-air septic system. Polite people don’t brag about their septic system. Nobody takes selfies in front of the plumbing. The Thornton Quarry wasn’t “built-up” it was excavated away. It doesn’t stand, fighting against nature. It was built to reflect man’s harmony with nature, recognize a partnership, stewardship, or a caretaker responsibility of the environment.
The Thornton Quarry is a limestone quarry in South West Chicagoland. It is part of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago’s vital infrastructure. In a city that was famously built on a swamp, drainage has always been an issue. When it rains, it floods, into the basements of homeowners. While this is tragic and calamitous for any homeowner, the floodwaters also over-top the capacity of the wastewater treatment plants to properly treat the human fecal matter that arrives with the floodwaters. The Thornton Quarry was attached to an amazing piece of infrastructure known as the Deep Tunnel Project. A network of tunnels carved out of the solid limestone that Chicago sits on, they connect to the largely played out sections of the quarry. This massive open pit serves as a shock absorber, but the shock it absorbs is the shock of the sudden influx of over-capacity which happens when it rains.
It cannot be overstated. The MWRD and the engineers who built and maintain this infrastructure are unsung environmental heroes. They keep the lakes and streams and the biodiversity that depends on them alive by preventing them from getting inundated by wastewater during storm events. These heroes will never have the acclaim of the designers and builders of the Golden Gate Bridge or the Hoover Dam but they have arguably done more good for more people and for the planet.
The geologists here at A3 Environmental Consultants are doing a very small part to test the wells at the Thornton Quarry and report back on the contents of the wastewater. But every day our staff goes out there I feel like we’re buying a day or two out of our time in purgatory. Someday we’ll be judged at the Pearly Gates and St Peter will ask why we should let a wretched soul like ours in. It won’t compensate or mitigate entirely for our sins in this world, but I’ll feel better knowing we worked on the Thornton Quarry project and I’ll make it a point to tell him the story of the humble but important job of protecting water quality in Norther Illinois.