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Troubles bubble in Chicago sewer project. Tunnel system to be dedicated next month; half remains unfinished

Underneath Chicago lies one of the nation's most controversial sewers. It is nicknamed ``Deep Tunnel.'' But while admirers regard it as an engineering feat -- detractors call the huge project a political boondoggle. Next month, the project may reenter the limelight as officials dedicate it. Bubbles of controversy are already rising to the surface.

The huge project is actually a 110-mile network of tunnels some 200 to 300 feet below the surface. So far, 47 of those miles have been built. The project was approved in 1972 to combat two periodic problems in the Chicago area: water pollution and flooding. Unlike cities with more modern sewage systems, Chicago has a combined sewer system that takes in both waste and stormwater. When it rains, the system overflows, sending wastes into rivers and streams and, during heavy rains, into Lake Michigan. Deep Tunnel was intended to act, in effect, as a holding tank that would put an end to the overflow problem.

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The project, however, came under heavy criticism for projected cost overruns in the mid-'70s. Federal funding practically dried up during the Reagan administration. Only a small 3.1 mile section is currently under construction. Thus far, $1.2 billion has been spent, but at $2.4 billion, critics say costs of completing Phase 1 are too high.

Costs have come down, says Raymond Rimkus, general superintendent of the Metropolitan Sanitary District of Greater Chicago. The 1985 budget for the project is estimated to come in 23 percent below earlier projections.

Will the rest of the project be funded? ``Yes,'' Mr. Rimkus says. ``My feeling is that [the] project will be finished. It's just a matter of time.'' Critics disagree.

``I think that the project is still probably dead,'' says Terry Brunner, executive director of the Better Government Association in Chicago. Officials at the dedication next month simply will be ``going out in a blaze of glory.''

The event may be marred by two related incidents involving Deep Tunnel. This week the Illinois attorney general filed suit against the sanitary district. He charged it violated state law by having at least 300 permanent workers in ``temporary'' posts in an attempt to avoid having them pass tests required for permanent jobs. Meanwhile, one worker in Deep Tunnel was killed Tuesday, apparently overcome by carbon dioxide gas.

Many observers agree that funding for Phase 2of the project -- building a series of reservoirs to help alleviate the flooding problem in some suburbs -- will be problematic, at best.

And that may be the saddest outcome of the controversial project, says Bruce Anderson, a one-time aide to former Sen. Charles Percy and project observer.

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