Dr. Shundar Lin is one of ten candidates competing in the Democratic primary for the three six-year seats on the board of commissioners of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District up for election this year. Dr. Lin, a native of Taiwan, received his PhD in sanitary engineering from Syracuse University. He spent a career as a water scientist for the Illinois State Water Survey, performing research on wastewater treatment, environmental protection, and watershed management, among other topics. He retired from the Water Survey in 2000, and moved to Chicago in 2008. He was appointed to the Illinois Pollution Control Board in 2008. He previously ran for commissioner in 2018 as a Republican.
Could you tell me about your academic background and career as a water scientist?
I am extremely qualified to serve as a commissioner. I hold a PhD in sanitary engineering from Syracuse University. I’ve spent a career as a water scientist for the Illinois State Water Survey. Also, I served on the Illinois Pollution Control Board as a board member. I have been one of the world’s leading wastewater scientists for more than forty years. I have published more than 100 papers on water, wastewater, and water resources, as well as three books. [Ed. note: Dr. Lin is the author of the Handbook of Environmental Engineering Calculations and the Water and Wastewater Calculation Manual, as well as a book about aerobics.] I’m not a politician. I’m running for commissioner based on my knowledge and experience. My purpose is contributing to our community. These are the reasons I’m running.
In 2018, you ran for commissioner as a Republican. Why did you decide to run as a Democrat this election?
I was from Peoria; in Peoria, most are Republican. So when I came up [to Chicago], I just said, “Oh, I’ll continue as a Republican.” But in this position, for more than forty years, the Democrats have control. They always pick three, and print them by the Democratic Party, and put the three candidates on. Nobody can beat the system.
I used my personal experience. I was on [the ballot], and multiple people said, “Oh, you’re a Republican? You can’t get the position on this.” My purpose is to get a position to work, to contribute to my society. In the Chicago area, the Cook County area, the Democrats are in control. If you want to do something, you need to join the Democrats.
You mentioned that you’re the only candidate who has taken the “zero fentanyl pledge.” What is that, and why is it important?
That is old, from 2018. There is a lot of toxic stuff, made by China, that should not be used. I think China agreed to stop the sale of that toxic material to our country, so that’s a good thing. [Ed. note: In 2019, China added fentanyl and other synthetic opioids to its list of controlled substances, banning the drugs from being sold abroad. China was the source of ninety-seven percent of fentanyl trafficked into the United States in 2016 and 2017.]
By the way, I can tell you now what I’m going to do if I am elected. Do you want me to tell you what I’m going to focus on?
Yeah, I’d love to know.
If I’m elected, I will focus on: one, promoting advanced technology for wastewater treatment. Two, keeping our water clean, including the use of autonomous technology to patrol our waterways. Three, improving our region’s management of stormwater, and reducing or eliminating floods from stormwater. Four, closely watching the district’s budget and passing a balanced budget. Five, ending cronyism and ensuring a fair bidding process for all engineering projects. Six, helping to better educate the public about the district’s role in protecting our water and land. I want to give a speech to colleges, communities, or any group to push what the district is doing and what the citizens can be doing to improve the protection of our water.
How do you invest in new technologies while also making sure the budget is balanced?
New technologies compared with their budget is actually a very small amount. The district has a very big budget, and the budget is strong. They’re on the plus side, not like our county, which is on the minus side. Any project is small compared with the whole budget, including the payroll. The employees are highly skilled persons, and they are paid well too; the engineers and most of the employees are paid very well. The budget is strong, and the budget also includes improving infrastructure. I think the whole budget is not a problem in the district.
What more do you think the district should be doing to prevent flooding and manage stormwater?
The district, they have been doing their best to manage stormwater, to control flooding. However, the “Deep Tunnel,” that refers to an ongoing project in civil engineering—I am a civil engineer—that project is very large and exciting, but because the climate is changing, storms are getting bigger and increasingly severe, and the [reservoirs] are [full]. Fortunately, the U.S. government helped us to build another reservoir, McCook Reservoir. That has completed phase one, but it still fills, so maybe it’s not enough, so we have phase two. We are very lucky—the city and the district work very hard to get money to control stormwater.
However, I have a point I observed. See the Des Plaines River watershed, where every year they have flooding, [large-scale] or small. But this can be eliminated. Most of the area is covered by the Forest Preserve District. Many times, the main reason [for flooding] is the holding trees on the channel, they’re getting removed. This problem increases water levels, so somebody somewhere will get flooded.
I suggest we should also empower retired persons, get that group to volunteer to help us clean up waterways. The most human mistake is not taking good care of maintenance. Another point is that ten-year storms, twenty-year storms, hundred-year storms, this data is already too old. We need to recalculate the value of ten-year, hundred-year storms.
What role do you think the district should have in reducing its emissions and addressing climate change?
Climate changing is a big story, not something the district can do. This whole nation [is producing] carbon dioxide. This must be reduced, and everybody can do something. We need more public education: you can drive less and take more public transportation, as I do. I don’t drive much. This will, if everybody does something, cut CO2 production.
By the way, at your house, you can do something to help reduce flooding. The district is doing a very good job. Six or ten years ago, they started a program where any community or any group of people who wants infrastructure to protect from flooding, they could get green infrastructure. This is a very good idea. The community can apply for financial help from the district to combat the flooding, everybody cooperating. [Ed. note: The MWRD’s Green Infrastructure Partnership Opportunity Program, created in 2014, offers financing to municipalities and public agencies that install green infrastructure.] The environment is not one man’s job. We need the whole citizenry, the whole organization.
The district recently voted to create an independent inspector general. Since you mentioned ensuring a fair bidding process for contracts, is there more you think the district should do on ethics?
That’s a good idea, I was supportive. I think some educational material should be given to another city department, or to the public. For other cities, like Peoria, [where I was] in the water building, they always had something printed when it was something important for the whole public.
The district has been trying to reduce phosphorus levels in the Chicago River, which contributes to a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. Is there more that you think the district should be doing to reduce phosphorus levels?
The district has to meet the EPA effluent requirements, and it’s usual, gradually, for the EPA to put some pressure on the district. The district should do, and the district can do, more to reduce E. coli and nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus, and metals. These are important.
The district is the second-largest landholder in Cook County after the Forest Preserves. Are there any initiatives you think the district should pursue with that land over the next few years?
They’re lucky that this [land] was all passed down. This should not be sold for private investment. The whole community, if they want to protect their waterways, the district should give it away to them to help the community. They’ll keep it as it was at the time, any community that wants natural resources protection, the district can give it to another organization. Absolutely no sale to individuals for development.
What challenges do you see coming up that the district and voters might not be thinking about now, but that will matter a lot down the road?
New law. The U.S. EPA does not set very high standards, but the state EPA will set up more strict effluent standards. This is good, as long as you put the new law where technology can reach it.
Sanitary engineering is [focused on] doing first, then research follows. This is not like other fields, like drug research or something; [they do] research first, then apply. In sanitary engineering, most technologies are developed by real people, the manufacturers or treatment plant [workers]. I’m guessing the MWRD has name power, and also does some in-house research. That’s very good—you don’t want everything to depend on outside [research]. In-house, we can have high quality engineering doing research.
By the way, we have this new ANITA process. I don’t know if you’re familiar or not, it’s a new nitrogen removal process. [Ed. note: The ANITA Mox process is a nutrient-removal process that uses less energy than traditional processes.] This is new in this country, but in Europe and Asia, they already use [this process]. For this project, when they were building, the price jumped up time and time again, so costs are unclear to the district and taxpayer. When I am in that position, I will always say that, for bigger contracts, the winner should buy insurance. If it’s a new project and [the contractor] signs the contract, that’s how much money will be billed, no matter what, and [contractors] can buy insurance.
Are there any final points you want to close on?
We need to talk to citizens. The citizens, they don’t know [about the district]. I am going to deliver speeches to the community, to colleges, even to high school students, because they are a very important part of society and need more knowledge of environmental protection. We need to cooperate with any organization that supports the protection of the environment. Educat[ing] the public is very important.
Sam Joyce is the nature editor and a managing editor of the Weekly. He last covered the closure of Pullman café bakery ‘Laine’s Bake Shop and an exhibit of macro-photography at a Kenwood church for the Weekly’s Arts Issue.