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(Above) Main branch of Chicago River on March 16. Photo provided by City of Chicago. (Click on images to view larger versions.)

25-Mar-24 – In the seven years since Friends of the Chicago River first suggested the city stop dyeing the river green for St. Patrick’s Day, the 62-year tradition has shown no sign of slowing. Thousands of people again gathered along the river on March 16 to watch members of Chicago Journeymen Plumbers Local 130 dump into the river 40 pounds of dye while keeping the recipe for the dye a secret.

This year, Friends of the Chicago River proposed the city find a new tradition.

“When the dyeing tradition started in 1962, on average there was sewage in the river every three days,” explained the organization in a statement released the day before this year’s dyeing. “It was fenced off and so polluted that it would have been difficult to imagine the river as it is today, alive with people enjoying it in myriad ways and of all kinds of wildlife, including more than 75 species of fish, turtles, herons, and beavers.”

The 6,000-member nonprofit says “another marvel” is now needed and has invited the public to help it re-imagine the annual event, one that “would treat our recovering river as a valued natural resource, not just the backdrop for fun.”

The dyeing of the Chicago River pre-dates the 1972 Clean Water Act that addressed pollution of the nation’s waterways. At first, an oil-based, highly fluorescent dye was used that kept the river green for at least one week. Today, a shorter-lived plant-based dye is used, which the City of Chicago says poses no environmental risk.

City of Chicago

The dye is actually orange until it comes in contact with water.

(Left) Plumbers dispense the dye into the Chicago River from the tour boat Riverview. Photo provided by City of Chicago.

The plumber’s union keeps the dye recipe secret and, according to The Sierra Club, there is no state permit for the dye to be discharged into the river, as required by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

The Siera Club, in a March 16 article on its website, said they were told by the Illinois EPA that “while a permit has not been issued for this event, the agency did review the information and safety data for the dye and concluded that there is no toxic effect.”

In 2021, Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter, along with Friends of the Chicago River and Openlands, an environmental group protecting, according to its website, “the natural and open spaces of northeastern Illinois,” argued that “even if the dye isn’t environmentally harmful, the city needs to rethink how it chooses to protect and interact with the river, especially as a signal to residents.”

One problem, claims Sierra Club, is that the official event has inspired “rogue dyers,” who in recent years snuck green dye into the north branch of the Chicago River and were never caught by Illinois Conservation Police.

“We totally understand the origins of the practice and the fact that Chicago will always be a proud Irish town,” said Jack Darin (right), director of Sierra Club’s Illinois chapter, but dyeing the river an “unnatural green,” he says, “does seem increasingly anachronistic, now that we’re able to celebrate the river with its natural color most other days.”

Democratic Party of Evanston

• Previous story: Environmentalists want river-dyeing tradition to end