History of the Illinois EPA

The Beginnings

In the spring of 1970, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Environmental Protection Act and created the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, the first comprehensive legal framework and state agency in the nation dedicated to cleaning up and protecting our outdoor environment. The legislation was signed by Governor Richard Ogilvie and with a small group of initial employees, who primarily had previously worked for the old state Sanitation Board and the Illinois Department of Public Health, the Agency began operations on July 1, 1970. Ever since then, Illinois EPA has been the state agency with the primary responsibility for carrying out state and federal environmental laws and regulations to protect and provide healthy air, land and water for the citizens of the state through a system of permits, inspections and compliance and enforcement, as well as having responsibility for regulating public water supplies and wastewater treatment and sewage systems.

The stage had been set by the first Earth Day that April and memorialized in the "new" 1970 Illinois State Constitution that contained a separate Environmental Article that declared: "The public policy of the State and the duty of each person is to provide and maintain a healthful environment for the benefit of this and future generations."

Protecting the environment—the air we breathe, our water resources and our land, had not always been much of a priority in the industrial revolution that made our nation and state economic powers in the second half of the 19th century and the 20th century. Putting up with increasing amounts of air and water pollution and toxic contamination was generally regarded as the price of progress and prosperity in the laissez faire capitalism that accompanied economic growth. When Illinois EPA and U.S. EPA were launched in 1970, in many metro areas of our state, refineries and steel mills and power plants and other major emission sources filled the air on hot summer days with particulates you could see and sulfuric acid and other pollutants that would literally burn the throat and tear up the eyes of nearby residents. Toxic chemicals and other waste and untreated sewage poured into rivers and lakes or into open industrial impoundment lagoons in many areas.

Industrial byproducts and other toxic chemicals contaminated factories and nearby areas, eventually creating thousands of abandoned "brownfields." Disposal sites sometimes burned out of control for days, while others contaminated groundwater sources of municipal drinking water wells.

In the early years of the agency there was often much resistance to change and the new regulations and regulators. The operators of hundreds of small dumps, where setting the garbage on fire daily was considered a "best practice" tried to block IEPA inspectors. Some major air polluters preferred to spend millions of dollars on legal fees in defiantly drawing out enforcement cases for years before the new Illinois Pollution Control Board and the courts rather than spend the money on available technology to comply with the regulations.

But those challenges also resulted in tremendous progress and improvement in the environment in that first decade. Illinois EPA and other state environmental agencies became primarily responsible for implementing such landmark federal environmental laws in the 1970s as the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Safe Drinking Water Act, and the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) that regulated the handling, storage and disposal of hazardous wastes.

The 1970s

In the 1970s, the new fledgling IEPA greatly increased water quality monitoring and increased public water supply sampling and engineering evaluations of wastewater and drinking water treatment plants, as well as end-of-the-pipe discharges from industrial facilities. The 1970 Illinois Anti-Pollution Bond Act approved by voter referendum also provided the first infrastructure grants to local governments through IEPA to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities to prevent water pollution. With a grant from IEPA, the Environmental Resources Training Center was established at Southern Illinois University at Edwardsville to provide uniform training for IEPA-certified treatment plant operators. There was also an initiative to reduce the impact of livestock feedlot runoff on water bodies.

On the air side, the early focus was to develop state plans to implement the new Clean Air Act criteria pollutants, with six counties initially exceeding the national standards for sulfur dioxide and particular matter, and literally hundreds of annual exceedances in some areas of the state of the ozone standard. The programs and strategies to combat these violations were contained in the Agency's first State Implementation Plan submitted to USEPA in 1979, building upon the permitting, monitoring and compliance programs developed in the 1970s. The Agency's "Smoke School" training program to detect opacity violations also began in the 1970s.

On the Land side, stopping the hundreds of open burning dumps and other illegal landfills was a major initial focus, followed by development of a landfill permitting and regulatory program and hazardous waste hauling and disposal licensing and regulations. Other major initiatives in the 1970s included an inventory of thousands of industrial impoundment areas and a statewide industrial waste inventory as part of the development of a management program under RCRA.

The 1970s also saw the development of environmental laboratories in Springfield, Chicago, Champaign and Marion, the emergency response program, and the enforcement program. Also, one of the major focuses of the 1970s was a Noise Pollution Control Program, one of the relatively few that no longer exists. The agency's environmental education packets for 5th and 6th graders and the accompanying Poster, Poetry and Prose contest was launched in 1978 and does still exist.

The 1980s

The early 1980s brought a great increase of resources and staff to the Agency and expansion of its regulatory role. In 1980, CERCLA, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act, launched the "Superfund" program to address closed or abandoned industrial facilities with major contamination from pre-regulatory disposal practices. In 1984, the "Clean Illinois" program was authorized with funding for Illinois' own version of Superfund, as part of the larger Build Illinois public works program. Between the state and federal programs, hundreds of severely contaminated industrial sites, many of them posing potential environmental health threats to their neighbors for years, were seriously addressed for the first time, with mobile incinerators that burned PCB-contaminated soil among the hallmarks of that time.

In 1981, the Illinois General Assembly passed a landmark new law shifting the responsibility for the siting of landfills and other "pollution control facilities" to local (municipal or county) governments, establishing a detailed process for evaluating environmental issues. The Agency retained the responsibility to permit the design, construction, and operation of the facilities.The 1980s also saw the creation of one of the Agency's oldest citizen partnership programs, the Voluntary Lake Monitoring Program, that continues to this day, as well as in 1989 the launch of the household hazardous waste collection one-day events, which continued for several years until suspended as a result of budgetary cuts. The agency's first summer internship program for college students, the Pollution Prevention Internships were launched in 1989 and continues to operate, placing students each summer at industrial and other facilities to help them reduce environmental impact, save energy and reduce costs.

The 80s also saw creation of the Leaking Underground Storage Tank reimbursement fund and regulatory program. By the mid-80s, virtually all municipalities had upgraded to at least secondary wastewater treatment standards and Build Illinois provided additional grants to meet enhanced Clean Water Act standards, and Safe Drinking Water Act amendments also added numerous additional contaminant limits. The Illinois Groundwater Protection Act was passed in 1987 and the Agency initiated setback zones and other comprehensive steps to protect groundwater. Amendments to the Clean Water Act in 1987 also launched the Section 319 nonpoint source pollution prevention grant program administered by IEPA.

In 1986, IEPA launched vehicle emission testing in the two ozone non-attainment areas, Chicagoland and Metro East. While the geographic testing area has remained largely the same, technological changes in both vehicle engines and testing equipment have resulted in program updates over the years. At the time the vehicle testing program began, the only air pollutant still causing a significant problem was ozone, after earlier efforts had brought the state into attainment for the first Clean Air Act standards for sulfur dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, particulates and lead.

The 1990s

The major amendments to the Clean Air Act in 1990 introduced new elements in the fight for clean air, including market-based principles, performance-based standards and emissions banking and trading, and use of alternate fuels, as well as improved scrubbers and other technology for reducing emissions from factories and power plants and other sources. Later in the 90s, IEPA launched the Emission Reduction Market System, an innovative market-based approach to reduce volatile organic materials from major sources in the Chicago area. In 1992, the Agency also launched a pilot project called "Cash for Clunkers" that purchased 207 older cars in the Chicago area to obtain emission reductions that gained some national attention. Another innovative program of the 90s was "Clean Break"—initially launched as a pilot in Rockford in 1995. It targeted printers and auto body and repair shops with less than 200 employees, offering them "amnesty" for any past environmental violations in exchange for compliance plans. The program went statewide in 1996 and 1997. In 1996 and 1997, Illinois EPA also took a leadership role in the Ozone Transport Assessment Group, involving thousands of participants from both the public and private sectors in the 38 states east of the Rockies. IEPA Director Mary Gade was Chair and Agency Bureau of Air staff provided key technical support. OTAG's work helped to shape other later USEPA regulations and strategies to address ground-level ozone or "smog."

Also launched in the 90s was Partners for Clean Air, the collaborative of business, local governments and other groups in the Chicagoland area to reduce pollution-causing activities on days when the weather was favorable for unhealthy ozone levels. Partners has since expanded to focus on fine particulates as well.

The 1990s also saw continued growth in the Agency's voluntary Site Remediation Program as well as launch of a new municipal brownfields grant program. The TACO assessment process and NFR letters were among the innovations driving these and the rest of the suite of Agency remediation programs. The waste tire disposal program also expanded with the start of countywide collections in 1990, and increased large-scale emergency removals funded by a user fee on tire sales, with many of the waste tires mixed with coal for fuel at power plants. 1991 brought the launch of the Governor's Environmental Corps summer internship/mentoring program for college students, which has also continued to the present.

Of the many environmental "crisis" the IEPA responded to in the 1990s, one of the oddest, that also attracted national news coverage, was the asbestos contamination at a "Twinkie" factory in suburban Chicago. A much greater potential crisis was the possibility of a massive "garbalanche" at the towering Paxton II landfill in the Lake Calumet area of Chicago.The seriousness of the threat prompted IEPA to undertake emergency stabilization and re-contouring work starting in March 1999, eventually costing the state more than $10 million. Later that year, funding was provided for the 33 Abandoned Landfills program, which used money from the new Illinois First capital program to address long-standing problems at several closed landfills around the state.

The New Millenium: 2000-Present

Among the new programs launched by the Agency in 2000 were the Alternate Fuels rebates to encourage the greater use of biofuels.

That same year, teams from the Agency, armed with mercury detectors, went to hundreds of locations in suburban Chicago, starting with salvage yards and then homes and businesses, after it was learned that crews from Nicor Gas Co. had improperly handled and disposed of mercury-containing devices.

The year 2000 also saw an extensive effort by IEPA Community Relations and technical staff to sample hundreds of private wells in DuPage County impacted by groundwater contamination from local industries.

Deregulation of the electric utility industry in Illinois also brought an avalanche of proposals and permit applications to the Agency for electric "peaker plants" particularly in the Chicago metro area, as well as local opposition and controversy.

Other new programs launched in the early 2000s included the Green Pays on Green Days program in the Chicago area in 2002 that featured new air superhero Breathe Easy Man, the Green Youth recognition program the same year, school mercury and hazardous waste pickups in 2003, and a gas lawnmower buy-back program in 2003 and 2004. In 2004, electronic transmittal of Discharge Monitoring Reports for wastewater treatment plants and the Drinking Water Watch database on the Agency's web site were launched.

A new major tool for water quality assessment, TMDLs or Total Maximum Daily Load, began being used in 2001. The Clean School Bus Program kicked off in 2003, funded primarily by a large Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP) and eventually made more than 3,000 diesel school buses cleaner.

SCALE—Streambank Cleanup and Lakeshore Enhancement—grants began in 2005, enlisting thousands of volunteers for shoreline cleanups.

In 2005, major legislation to expand "right to know" notifications to citizens potentially impacted by pollution was enacted. That year also saw the launch of the new Illinois Removes Illegal Dumps (IRID) program, the first large-scale effort in the Agency's history to address long-festering open dumps around the state, with more than 300 cleaned up in subsequent years.

In 2006, extensive negotiations with the state's major coal-fired utilities resulted in a landmark agreement to reduce mercury emissions from their 21 plants by 90 percent by June 2009, going significantly beyond proposed federal regulations. Agreements were also reached and included in regulations from the Illinois Pollution Control Board to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from the plants beyond federal requirements. Illinois, with key input from IEPA, has been an overall leader in mercury reduction, with several new state laws banning various types of mercury products or imposing recycling requirements on manufacturers.

In the 2007-2008 period, major initiatives included a study of Illinois' greenhouse gases and recommended strategies to reduce them by a broad-based Illinois Climate Change Advisory Group. A pilot water sampling program, pilot collection program, statewide conference and launch of the MEDS (Medication Education and Disposal Solutions) Collaborative to address the growing concern over contamination of water by discarded pharmaceuticals also occurred in that period.

In the 2008-2009 period, accomplishments and initiatives have included a joint effort with the Illinois Department of Public Health to encourage increased private well testing. A situation where Village of Crestwood officials falsely indicated they had not been blending water from a contaminated backup well, in 2009 prompted passage and implementation of a strengthened environmental right-to-know law, expanded monitoring of source water supplies and backup wells, along with criminal penalties for knowingly giving false information to IEPA. IEPA also obtained new administrative citation authority for violations involving used tires in 2009.

Also, in 2009, Illinois EPA was given responsibility for administering parts of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act ("stimulus") funds for Illinois and met or exceeded all requirements of the program, issuing148 loans for a total of $516 million for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects across the state. The program created thousands of construction jobs, while also allowing communities to proceed with these much-needed projects with reduced impact to water and sewer ratepayers as a result of principal "forgiveness" and zero-interest features introduced under the program. Illinois EPA also received ARRA funding to clean up 28 "orphan" leaking underground storage tank sites as well as funding for clean diesel projects.

In 2009, the Agency also joined with the Illinois Department of Public Health to launch a Safe Well Water Initiative to increase private well owner awareness of their responsibility for regular testing of drinking water, particularly for volatile organic compounds, such as industrial solvents and gasoline-related chemicals from historical contamination. There are an estimated 400,000 private wells across the state still used by Illinois residents as their primary source of drinking water, in both urban and rural areas.

New state legislation to study and promote the increased use of green infrastructure to reduce contamination from stormwater runoff from parking lots and streets, through such practices as permeable pavements and green alleys and rain gardens, was enacted in 2009 and numerous applications were received in 2010 for the first Green Infrastructure grants.

In 2010, after conducting the largest illegal dump cleanup in the Agency's history at a site in the Cook County suburb of Markham, Illinois EPA joined with other state agencies in launching a Prevention of Illegal Open Dumping Initiative to expand awareness , reporting and prosecution of illegal dumping.

Illinois EPA also began implementing the Electronics Products Recycling and Reuse Act, which sets recycling requirements for manufacturers, who were also required to fund drop off locations around the state, with a ban on landfills accepting these materials kicking in on Jan. 1, 2012.

The year 2011 brought landmark action from the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) to designate portions of the Chicago Area Waterway System (including part of the Chicago River) for primary contact, such as swimming and boating, and requiring disinfection of wastewater treatment plant effluents into the waterways for the first time, following a massive study by Illinois EPA and years of contested hearings before the IPCB.

Also, in 2011, an environmental permit streamlining legislative package was negotiated between Illinois EPA and major business and industry groups and signed into law by Governor Pat Quinn that will help boost economic development and accompanying jobs while still protecting the environment. One of the first major benchmark requirements of the new law, a web-based "environmental permitting portal" was launched on schedule in January 2012 and now provides a "one-stop shop" for permit applicants to obtain applications, track their status and find guidance documents and permit application checklists. Illinois EPA also began implementing in 2012 the new Registration of Smaller Sources (ROSS) program that is designed to benefit both Illinois' small businesses and the Agency by allowing an estimated 3,200 of the 6,500 air emission sources in the state to go through a much simpler registration process than the current permitting procedures. Since those sources eligible to register account for less than one percent of the total air emissions, the program will have little or no impact on the environment while allowing the Agency to devote more staff resources to the larger emission sources.

The Illinois Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act, signed into law by Governor Pat Quinn in August 2011 and administered by Illinois EPA, established requirements for manufacturers selling products in the state to register, meet annual recycling goals and provide funding for collection costs. The law also banned the landfilling of most e-waste starting Jan. 1, 2012. During 2013, 85 manufacturers were registered and received recycling goals. They received credit for recycling more than 51.6 million pounds of electronic products, exceeding the goal set by the law by more than 4.1 million pounds for 2013. Televisions represented the biggest volume of the collections, as more consumers dispose of older sets. There were a total of 576 registered residential source e-waste collection locations throughout Illinois in 72 of the state’s 102 counties by mid-2014.   

Under legislation signed by Gov. Quinn in August 2012, passed after extensive negotiations with the drycleaning industry, environmental advocacy groups and others, extensive new requirements for control and containment systems, better training and more comprehensive reporting for perc by drycleaners went into effect. Perc has been used in drycleaning since the 1930s and was the first chemical to be classified as a carcinogen by a federal agency. Of the the 47 public health warnings issued by the Illinois EPA and Department of Public Health prior to passage of the legislation, 36 were due to detection of perc in source groundwater. The new law included requiring all new drycleaning machines, beginning in 2013, to have primary and secondary control systems to reduce perc concentration and to have sealed containment structures to contain leaks or spills by 2014. In addition, each drycleaning facility was required to have at least one person trained in best management practices for handling perc, as well as requiring certification that all hazardous waste is being stored and transported lawfully as a condition of dry cleaning license renewals. Illinois EPA and drycleaning industry groups have also held numerous workshops on safe perc handling.

Governor Pat Quinn’s $1 billion Illinois Clean Water Initiative (CWI) program of low-interest loans to local governments for wastewater and drinking water infrastructure projects was launched in October 2012 on the 40th anniversary of the landmark federal Clean Water Act. Through mid-September 2014, it had financed more than $557 million for 64  wastewater projects, including upgrades, replacements or expansions of sewers and treatment plants, benefitting nearly 9 million Illinoisans and creating more than 19, 500 jobs. On the drinking water side, more than $273 million for 52 projects, including replacing or extending water mains, upgrading treatment plants and pumping stations, storage tanks and water loss reduction/conservation measures, such as new water meters, has been financed over the same period. Those improvements benefit more than 3.5 million Illinois residents and created an estimated 11,100 jobs.

In July 2014, Governor Quinn signed administration legislation that received nearly unanimous support in the Illinois General Assembly that doubled CWI authorization to $2 billion and also added stormwater management projects such as storm sewers and additional treatment capacity to reduce flooding and pollution of waterways. On June 19, 2014, Governor Quinn approved a new law that greatly expands oversight of used tire storage sites. The bill signing was on the one-year anniversary of one of the worst tire fires in the state’s history. On June 19, 2013, a large accumulation of tires at J&R Used Tire Service in Hoopeston ignited and burned for more than a month. The massive fire required evacuation of nearby residents; a railway and local roads were blocked off and emergency responders occupied the site to prevent the fire from spreading. The new law requires used tire storage sites with more than 10,000 passenger tires or that process 50 tons or more of used tires in a year to acquire a solid waste permit from IEPA. They are now required to maintain records, allow inspections and submit documentation, including a tire storage plan and contingency plan, to IEPA. In addition failure to comply with financial assurance requirements can result in an order to immediately cease operations to prevent a threat to the public and the environment. In addition, the legislation includes new authorization for my agency to develop new markets for used and waste tires that have been declining in recent years.

One of the most controversial waste management/ pollution issues Illinois EPA has been dealing with since mid-2013 is the storage and handling of petroleum coke, more commonly referred to as “petcoke” a byproduct of oil refining. Starting last August, Illinois EPA began receiving complaints of black dust clouds impacting residential neighborhoods in the southeast side of Chicago. In the fall of 2013, as a result of the citizen complaints, Illinois EPA conducted several inspections of the petcoke terminals and an associated rail line and also held a listening session for concerned citizens in the area and made an enforcement referral to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office against two petcoke storage companies. The Agency also sought new comprehensive regulations addressing the petcoke issues from the Illinois Pollution Control Board.

Illinois EPA also, in 2013, proposed additional regulation of coal ash before the Illinois Pollution Control Board.  Illinois EPA was one of the first state agencies to do a comprehensive inventory of coal ash or coal combustion waste ponds associated with coal-fired power plants, which supply nearly half of the electric power generation in Illinois. The proposed regulations would cover all coal combustion surface impoundments and power generating facilities in Illinois. They include requirements for groundwater monitoring, weekly inspection, annual reports, prevention, corrective action and closure.

In April 2013, an agreement between USEPA and Illinois EPA was finalized in which IEPA made a number of additional commitments regarding Environmental Justice and preventing nondiscrimination.   IEPA has revised its EJ Public Participation Policy “so that permitting activities in areas identified as potential EJ communities will be given an appropriate level of outreach,” and “IEPA will identify potential EJ communities using best available screening methods, which includes IEPA demographic criteria prior to any permitting activity.” The Agency is also redesigning it’s online permit tracking system webpage to identify all projects in potential EJ communities. Other online tools, including educational materials and online mapping for brownfields sites in EJ areas are also in development. In addition, the statutorily-created Illinois Commission on Environmental Justice began meeting in April 2013 and issued its first report and recommendations in October 2014.

More detailed information on activities and programs of the Illinois EPA may be found in the Biennial Reports and Annual Environmental Conditions Reports covering the period from 1996 through 2012.