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(Above) Chicago Journeymen Plumbers, Local 130, mix what they assure the public is environmentally-friendly vegetable-based orange dye into the Chicago River on March 11, turning the river bright green. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

With the Chicago River recovering from decades of environmental abuse, do we really need to dump dye into it every St. Patrick’s Day or whenever the Cubs win the World Series? The organization working to improve and protect the Chicago River says now may be a good time to find other ways to celebrate.

25-Mar-17 – Though it may attract tens of thousands of people to the Chicago River each St. Patrick’s Day, not everyone is convinced dyeing the river green – or any color – is a good idea.

Margaret Frisbie, executive director of the 6,000-member nonprofit Friends of the Chicago River, says with the river healthier than it has been in more than 150 years, now may be a good time to end the 55-year-old tradition.

Photo by Steven Dahlman “We’re getting to the point where perhaps dyeing the river green is not the best way to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day,” says Frisbie (left), “because we believe that it makes people think that the Chicago River is not as healthy as it actually is.”

When the annual tradition started in 1962, before laws compelled manufacturers to trap pollutants, worse things than orange dye were going into the Chicago River.

Now, with its 70 species of fish, plants, canoes, kayaks, and talk of people swimming in the river someday soon, Friends of the Chicago River, says Frisbie, is “examining what the best practices are and what they should be.”

For one thing, what exactly is in the orange dye?

“Everyone says it’s a secret recipe,” says Frisbie. “We’ve never seen a permit for what they put in the river. The way that the rules work is that Illinois [Environmental Protection Agency] is required to give a permit to anybody who discharges into the river – anything. And so, they should have a permit that would mean the Illinois EPA has tested and looked into what is in the dye. And if they haven’t done that, then the Illinois EPA is not doing their job.”

Though she says they are not actively trying to shut down the annual dyeing, and have nothing personally against Chicago Journeymen Plumbers, Local 130, which organizes the event, the river has changed, says Frisbie, “so we need to rethink how we use it.”

“You think about the comparison of…the Mississippi River, a wild and scenic river – nobody would ever let them dye it green.”

Or blue. When the Chicago River was dyed blue on November 4, 2016, to celebrate the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series, Friends of the Chicago River was not as amused as were Cubs fans.

“We were thrilled that the Cubs won but it’s a terrible precedent to set, that you can dye the river…for whatever occasion suits you.”

(Right) Hundreds of people on the Dearborn Street Bridge watch the dyeing of the Chicago River on March 14, 2015. Photo by Steven Dahlman

Compared with decades of sewage going in the river, the occasional dye is not a top priority but Friends of the Chicago River has started to examine the issue more closely, with the goal that the river-dyeing tradition will eventually end.

“Maybe it goes out with a big hurrah one day where this is it, we’re done, the river is alive, and let’s celebrate a new way – and giant green shamrocks made of food coloring and ice melt away into the river rather than a comedy of color – an amusement park theme as opposed to a natural resource.”

Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local 130 and Illinois EPA were invited by email to comment but neither organization responded.