Local officials acknowledge that a giant sewage-cooking machine in west suburban Stickney is a waste of money, but they have decided to move ahead anyway with a project that could cost Chicago and Cook County taxpayers $217 million.
Once billed as an innovative way to turn the region's sewage sludge into fertilizer, the project is a decade behind schedule.
The Tribune first reported in May 2009 that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District had concluded that the 60-foot-tall sludge ovens aren't needed. After several attempts to block it, district staff recently determined they couldn't escape the contract and its steep price tag, which keeps growing as consultant fees and other costs pile up.
"You have to remember this contract was signed a decade ago," said Richard Lanyon, the district's general superintendent, who inherited the troubled project when he took office. "If we were confronted with the same situation today, we would say we don't need it. But we have a contract, and we have to live with it."
The district's elected commissioners are expected to grant final approval early next month.
The sludge cooker, nicknamed the "Black Box" even though its corrugated steel walls are white, was unveiled a decade ago when district officials feared they were running out of disposal options. Turning a quarter of the region's sludge into tiny pellets, they said, would make the dried human and industrial waste more marketable to sell as fertilizer to farmers or soil conditioner to park districts.
But the project has been plagued with problems and cost overruns since commissioners awarded the lucrative contract to a company partly owned by the district's former superintendent, Bart Lynam, raising questions about Chicago-style cronyism and insider politics.