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In the spring of 1970, the Illinois General Assembly passed the Illinois Environmental Protection Act and created the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (Illinois EPA), 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 previously worked for the old state Sanitation Board and the Illinois Department of Public Health (IDPH), the Illinois EPA began operations on July 1, 1970. Since that time, the Illinois EPA has been the state agency with the primary responsibility for carrying out state and federal environmental laws and regulations to protect the air, land, and water of the state through permitting, inspections, and compliance & enforcement, as well as having responsibility for regulating public water supplies and public wastewater treatment & sewage systems. The stage had been set by the first Earth Day in April 1970 and memorialized in the 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 was not much of a priority during the industrial revolution that made our nation and state economic powers; the increasing amount of pollution was generally regarded as the price of progress and prosperity as part of the laissez-faire capitalism that accompanied economic growth. When the Illinois EPA and U.S. EPA were launched in 1970, refineries, steel mills, power plants, and other major emission sources filled the air with visible particulates, sulfuric acid, and other pollutants. In many areas, toxic chemicals, untreated sewage, and other wastes poured into rivers, lakes, or open industrial impoundment lagoons. Industrial byproducts and other toxic chemicals contaminated factories and nearby areas, eventually creating thousands of abandoned Brownfields properties. 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 Illinois EPA, there was often much resistance to change. The operators of hundreds of small dumps, where setting the garbage on fire daily was considered a "best practice", tried to block Illinois EPA inspectors. Some major air polluters preferred to spend millions of dollars on legal fees to defiantly draw out enforcement cases for years 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 during that first decade. The 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 waste.

The 1970s

During the 1970s, the new fledgling Illinois EPA greatly increased water quality monitoring, public water supply sampling, engineering evaluations of wastewater & 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 the Illinois EPA to upgrade wastewater treatment facilities to prevent water pollution. With a grant from the Illinois EPA, the Environmental Resources Training Center was established at Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville to provide uniform training for Illinois EPA-certified treatment plant operators. There was also an initiative to reduce the impact of livestock runoff into water bodies.

Additionally, 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 hundreds of annual exceedances of the ozone standard in some areas of the state. The programs and strategies to combat these violations were contained in the Illinois EPA's first State Implementation Plan submitted to the U.S. EPA in 1979, building upon the permitting, monitoring, and compliance programs developed in the 1970s. In addition, the Illinois EPA Smoke School training program to detect opacity violations also began in the 1970s.

Furthermore, 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 & disposal licensing/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 (Springfield, Chicago, Champaign, and Marion), the emergency response program, and the enforcement program. Also, one of the major focuses of the 1970s was noise pollution. Regarding environmental education, the Illinois EPA Poster, Poetry and Prose contest was launched in 1978 and still exists.

The 1980s

The early 1980s brought a great increase of resources and staff to the Illinois EPA and expansion of its regulatory role. In 1980, the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act (CERCLA) 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. Mobile incinerators that burned PCB-contaminated soil were 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 Illinois EPA retained the responsibility to permit the design, construction, and operation of the facilities. The 1980s also saw the creation of the Voluntary Lake Monitoring Program and household hazardous waste collection one-day events. In addition, the Pollution Prevention Internships were launched in 1989 and continue to operate.

The 1980s also saw creation of the Leaking Underground Storage Tank (LUST) reimbursement fund and regulatory program. By the mid-1980s, 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. In addition, Safe Drinking Water Act amendments added numerous additional contaminant limits. Furthermore, the Illinois Groundwater Protection Act was passed in 1987, and the Illinois EPA 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 (NPS) Pollution Grant Program.

In 1986, the Illinois EPA launched vehicle emission testing in the two ozone non-attainment areas, the Chicago area 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 & emissions banking/trading, the use of alternate fuels, and the use of improved scrubbers & other technology for reducing emissions from factories, power plants, and other sources. Later in the 1990s, the Illinois EPA 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 Illinois EPA launched a pilot project called "Cash for Clunkers" that purchased 207 older cars in the Chicago area to obtain emission reductions. Another innovative program of the 1990s was "Clean Break", which was 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.

In 1996 and 1997, the Illinois EPA also took a leadership role in the Ozone Transport Assessment Group (OTAG), involving thousands of participants from both the public and private sectors in the 38 states east of the Rockies. Illinois EPA Director Mary Gade was Chair, and Illinois EPA Bureau of Air staff provided key technical support. This work helped to shape later U.S. EPA regulations and strategies to address ground-level ozone ("smog"). Also launched in the 1990s was Partners for Clean Air, the collaboration of business, local governments and other groups in the Chicago area to reduce pollution-causing activities on days when the weather was favorable for unhealthy ozone levels. Partners for Clean Air was expanded to focus on fine particulates as well.

The 1990s also saw continued growth of the Site Remediation Program (SRP) & Brownfields grant program. The Tiered Action to Corrective Action Objectives (TACO) assessment process and No Further Remediation (NFR) letters were among the innovations driving these Illinois EPA cleanup programs. The waste tire disposal program also expanded with the start of countywide collections in 1990. This program 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. In addition, 1991 brought the launch of the Governor's Environmental Corps summer internship/mentoring program for college students.

The asbestos contamination at a "Twinkie" factory in suburban Chicago was one of the many environmental crises the Illinois EPA responded to in the 1990s. A much greater crisis was the possibility of a massive "garbalanche" at the towering Paxton, Illinois landfill in the Lake Calumet area of Chicago. The seriousness of the threat prompted the Illinois EPA 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. Abandoned landfills are handled by the Illinois EPA State Response Action Program.

The New Millennium: 2000-Present

Among the new programs launched by the Illinois EPA in 2000 were the Alternate Fuels rebates to encourage the greater use of biofuels. That same year, the Illinois EPA, armed with mercury detectors, went to hundreds of locations in suburban Chicago after it was learned that crews from Nicor Gas Company had improperly handled and disposed of mercury-containing devices. The year 2000 also saw an extensive effort by the Illinois EPA Office of 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 Illinois EPA for electric "peaker plants", particularly in the Chicago area, as well as local opposition and controversy. 

A new major tool for water quality assessment, Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL), was implemented in 2001. The Clean School Bus Program kicked off in 2003, which was funded primarily by a large Supplemental Environmental Project (SEP). This program eventually made more than 3,000 diesel school buses cleaner. 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 & hazardous waste pickups in 2003; and a gas lawnmower buy-back program in 2003 and 2004. Additionally, electronic transmittal of Discharge Monitoring Reports for wastewater treatment plants and the Drinking Water Watch database were launched in 2004.

Streambank Cleanup and Lakeshore Enhancement (SCALE) grants began in 2005, enlisting thousands of volunteers for shoreline cleanups. In 2005, major legislation was enacted to expand Right-to-Know (RTK) notifications to the public potentially impacted by pollution. That year also saw the launch of the new Illinois Removes Illegal Dumps (IRID) program, the first large-scale effort in Illinois EPA 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 - significantly beyond proposed federal regulations. Agreements were also reached and included in regulations from the Illinois Pollution Control Board (IPCB) to reduce sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide emissions from the plants beyond federal requirements. Illinois, with key input from the Illinois EPA, 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.

During 2007 & 2008, major initiatives included a study of Illinois' greenhouse gases and reduction strategy by a broad-based Illinois Climate Change Advisory Group. A pilot water sampling program, pilot collection program, statewide conference, and launch of the Medication Education and Disposal Solutions (MEDS) Collaborative (to address growing concern over contamination of water by medication disposal also occurred during that period.

In 2009, Village of Crestwood officials falsely indicated they had not been blending water from a contaminated backup well, which prompted passage and implementation of a strengthened environmental RTK law, expanded monitoring of source water supplies and backup wells, along with criminal penalties for knowingly giving false information to the Illinois EPA. In addition, accomplishments and initiatives included a joint effort with IDPH to encourage increased private well testing during this time. Also in 2009, the Illinois EPA joined with IDPH to launch a Safe Well Water Initiative to increase private well users' awareness of their responsibility for regular testing of drinking water, particularly for volatile organic compounds from industrial solvents & gasoline-related chemicals. Private water wells are still used by Illinois residents as a primary source of drinking water, in both urban and rural areas.

The Illinois EPA obtained new administrative citation authority for violations involving used tires in 2009. The Illinois EPA was also given responsibility for administering parts of the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) funds for Illinois in 2009 and met or exceeded all requirements of the program, issuing 148 loans for a total of $516 million for wastewater & drinking water infrastructure projects across the state. The program created thousands of construction jobs and allowed 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. The Illinois EPA also received ARRA funding to clean up 28 LUST sites as well as funding for clean diesel projects. In 2009, new state legislation was enacted to study and promote the increased use of green infrastructure to reduce contamination from stormwater runoff from parking lots and streets - through permeable pavements, green alleys and rain gardens. Also, numerous applications were received in 2010 for the first Green Infrastructure grants.

In 2010, after conducting the largest illegal dump cleanup in the history of the Illinois EPA at a site in the Cook County suburb of Markham, the 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. The 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 starting on January 1, 2012.

The year 2011 brought landmark action from the IPCB to designate portions of the Chicago Area Waterway System (including part of the Chicago River) for primary contact, such as swimming and boating. In addition, the IPCB required disinfection of wastewater treatment plant effluents into the waterways for the first time following a massive study by the Illinois EPA and years of contested hearings before the IPCB. Also in 2011, an environmental permit streamlining legislative package was negotiated between the Illinois EPA and major business & industry groups to increase economic development and 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 in January 2012 and now provides a "one-stop shop" for permit applicants to obtain applications, track their status, and find guidance documents & permit application checklists. 

In 2012, the Illinois EPA also began implementing the new Registration of Smaller Sources (ROSS) program that is designed to benefit both Illinois' small businesses and the Illinois EPA 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 Illinois EPA to devote more staff resources to the larger emission sources.

The Illinois Electronic Products Recycling and Reuse Act, signed into law in August 2011 and administered by the 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 electronics waste ("e-waste") starting January 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 for 2013 by more than 4.1 million pounds. Older televisions represented the biggest volume of the collections. 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 in August 2012 that passed after extensive negotiations with the drycleaning industry, environmental advocacy groups, & others, extensive new requirements became effective for control and containment systems, better training, and more comprehensive reporting for perchloroethylene (PCE) by drycleaners. PCE 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 47 public health warnings issued by the Illinois EPA and IDPH prior to passage of the legislation, 36 were due to detection of PCE in source groundwater. The new law required all new drycleaning machines, beginning in 2013, to have primary and secondary control systems to reduce PCE 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 PCE and certification that all hazardous waste was being stored and transported lawfully as a condition of drycleaning license renewals. The Illinois EPA and drycleaning industry groups have also held numerous workshops on safe PCE handling.

The Illinois Clean Water Initiative (CWI) program, which consists 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, the CWI program financed more than $557 million for 64 wastewater projects, including upgrades, replacements, or expansions of sewers & treatment plants - benefitting nearly 9 million Illinoisans and creating more than 19, 500 jobs. More than $273 million was financed for 52 projects, including replacing or extending water mains, upgrading treatment plants & pumping stations, and storage tanks and water loss reduction/conservation measures (e.g., new water meters). Those improvements benefited more than 3.5 million Illinois residents and created an estimated 11,100 jobs. In July 2014, administration legislation was signed 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 & additional treatment capacity to reduce flooding and pollution of waterways.

 On June 19, 2014, a new law was approved that greatly expanded 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 the Illinois EPA. The law requires sites to maintain records, allow inspections, and submit documentation, including a tire storage plan & contingency plan to the Illinois EPA. 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.

One of the most controversial waste management/pollution issues the 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). In August 2013, the Illinois EPA received complaints of black dust clouds impacting residential neighborhoods in the southeast side of Chicago. In the fall of 2013, as a result of the complaints, the Illinois EPA conducted several inspections of the petcoke terminals and an associated rail line, held a listening session for the public, and made an enforcement referral to the Illinois Attorney General’s Office against two petcoke storage companies. The Illinois EPA also sought new comprehensive regulations addressing the petcoke issues from the IPCB.

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

In April 2013, an agreement between the U.S. EPA and the Illinois EPA was finalized, in which the Illinois EPA made a number of additional commitments regarding Environmental Justice (EJ) and preventing nondiscrimination. The Illinois EPA 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; the Illinois EPA will identify potential EJ communities using best available screening methods. As a result, the Illinois EPA has designed an online permit tracking system webpage to identify all projects in potential EJ communities. Other online tools include educational materials and an EJ mapping tool. 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.

Effective July 1, 2017, Executive Order 2017-03 transferred the Office of Energy and Recycling from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity to the Illinois EPA. The recycling mandates became the responsibility of the Bureau of Land as part of the Waste Reduction and Compliance Section. All duties, funds, and obligations related to energy went to the Associate Director’s Office, which created a new Office of Energy. The Office of Energy ensures that energy programming is developed in collaboration with the Illinois EPA Office of Environmental Justice along with the Bureaus of Air, Land, and Water. The Office of Energy operates three programs: 1) energy efficiency at the energy/water nexus, which includes assessments and grants to publicly-owned wastewater treatment plants; 2) energy code support for local governments and building trades; and 3) investment in new, clean energy technologies.

The Climate and Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) was passed by the General Assembly and signed into law by Governor Pritzker on September 15, 2021. CEJA includes provisions to phase out carbon emissions from the energy and transportation sectors. The Illinois EPA is directed in CEJA to establish rebate and grant programs for electric vehicles and charging stations and oversee the phase-out of fossil fuel-fired electrical generation units.  

In October 2021, U.S. EPA committed to a whole agency approach to address Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) and safeguard communities from PFAS contamination. The Illinois EPA conducted a statewide investigation (fall of 2020 – December 2021) into the prevalence and occurrence of PFAS in finished drinking water at all 1,749 community water supplies in Illinois. Data gathered as part of this investigation will aid in the possible development of future state-only Maximum Contaminant Level (MCL) regulatory standards. On December 8, 2021, Illinois EPA proposed amendments to 35 Ill. Adm. Code 620. Information on the proposed amendments can be found on the 620 Groundwater Quality webpage.

On December 16, 2021, the U.S. EPA announced next steps to strengthen the regulatory framework on lead in drinking water. Following U.S. EPA's review of the Lead and Copper Rule Revisions (LCRR) under Executive Order 13990, the U.S. EPA has concluded that there are significant opportunities to improve the rule to support the overarching goal of proactively removing lead service lines and more equitably protecting public health.

Effective January 1, 2022, the Lead Service Line Replacement and Notification Act (Public Act 102-0613) replaced the current lead materials inventory requirements found in the Illinois Environmental Protection Act at 415 ILCS 5/17.11. The lead service line (LSL) replacement and notification requirements can be found at 415 ILCS 5/17.12. Additionally, Public Act 102-0613 established the Lead Service Line Replacement Advisory Board. More information can be found on the Lead Service Line Information webpage