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Paris is cleaning up the Seine River in preparation for the 2024 Olympics

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

As Paris prepares to host the 2024 Olympic Games, it's taking on a big challenge - cleaning up the Seine River. NPR's Eleanor Beardsley looks at what that entails.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: I'm standing on a bridge, looking out over the Seine River glistening in the sun. This beautiful river winds its way through the heart of the city, and Paris wants to use it during the Olympics. It wants to host the opening ceremony on the Seine River. And it wants to hold Olympic swimming competitions in its waters.

TONY ESTANGUET: It will work. It will work.

BEARDSLEY: That's Tony Estanguet, president of the 2024 Olympic organizing committee. He says national, regional and city projects are converging to clean the Seine and make it swimmable.

ESTANGUET: We speak about 20,000 houses and industries that will be better linked to the system in place and not giving their waste on the river Seine.

BEARDSLEY: The system he's talking about is Paris' 19th-century sewer network, which carries both rain and wastewater. But storms are the big problem. Authorities say heavy rains can swell sewer volumes up to 50 times within minutes, forcing valves to open and release rain, sink and toilet water into the Seine. But Paris has a plan to fix that.

(SOUNDBITE OF METAL CLANGING)

BEARDSLEY: I step into a cage elevator on a work site near the Austerlitz train station in the east of the city.

There's a giant work site below. Oh, my gosh. (Speaking French).

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Ten stories down we're going, under the Seine.

Where they're building a massive concrete tank known as a restitution and storage basin. Etienne Kleitz directs the project for the Paris mayor.

ETIENNE KLEITZ: (Through interpreter) We'll be able to store 50,000 cubic meters of water here during a storm. And when the storm ends and the level in the sewers goes back down, this water will be pumped back into the sewage system instead of being partially released into the river.

BEARDSLEY: The storage tank will be able to hold 13 million gallons. That's enough water to fill 20 Olympic swimming pools. During the first Olympic Games hosted by Paris in 1900, seven swimming events were held in the Seine. Parisians bathed and did laundry in the river until 1923, when it was banned. Still, denizens swam off and on in their river until the 1960s, when the Seine became too polluted with trash, bacteria, and even heavy metals.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JACQUES CHIRAC: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In 1990, former President Jacques Chirac, then mayor of Paris, promised to clean up the river, saying he would personally swim in the Seine in three years - he never did. Samuel Colin-Canivez is the city's lead engineer in charge of sewage projects. He says the Seine was its dirtiest in the 1970s and '80s.

SAMUEL COLIN-CANIVEZ: (Through interpreter) Everything was basically dead in the ecosystem. It was in a critical state. The river was just a navigation and tourism route. But since cleanup efforts began in the 1990s, we've come back to many species of fish and all kinds of vegetation.

BEARDSLEY: Still, he says, the river is chronically polluted with bacteria because the sewer system has to disgorge into it around 12 times a year in heavy rains. The goal is to reduce that to just twice a year. But zero is impossible, he says, because there will always be that unpredictable storm. The Olympic committee's Estanguet says that's why they have a swimming contingency plan.

ESTANGUET: To postpone the competitions if the rains will be too strong during the first week, because we know now that we need 44 hours after the end of the rain to refine the good quality of the Seine.

BEARDSLEY: Parisians have dreamed of being able to once again swim in their river, says Colin-Canivez.

COLIN-CANIVEZ: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: "We're not doing all these water-cleaning projects just for the Olympics," he says, "but the Games are a catalyzer and accelerator." But just as importantly, says the sewage chief, the public will be able to swim in the Seine next summer and every summer thereafter.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Eleanor Beardsley began reporting from France for NPR in 2004 as a freelance journalist, following all aspects of French society, politics, economics, culture and gastronomy. Since then, she has steadily worked her way to becoming an integral part of the NPR Europe reporting team.