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South Chicago, East Side

Lakefront Dump Site Set For Decades-Long Expansion, Despite Pleas From Southeast Siders Already ‘Overwhelmed With Pollution’

The Army Corps of Engineers plans to expand its East Side disposal site for contaminated sediment as it nears capacity — crushing neighbors' hopes for public park space along the river.

A boat enters the Calumet River from Lake Michigan, as seen from Steelworkers Park. On the other side of the river is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' disposal facility for polluted sediment.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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EAST SIDE — The Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward with plans to expand a lakefront dump site so the agency can continue storing polluted sediment from local waterways in East Side through at least 2043.

The 43-acre site, which neighbors Calumet Park at the mouth of the Calumet River, stores sediment dredged from the river and five other federally maintained waterways in the city.

The East Side site is set to reach its current capacity by 2022. Since January 2010, the agency has explored options for continuing to store sediment once the site reaches capacity.

After more than a decade of planning, the Army Corps released its final draft plan for storing the polluted sediment July 17, in which the agency recommends the construction of a new facility on top of the existing site.

The now-recommended “vertical expansion” was not considered a viable option in the Army Corps’ 2015 draft plan, but became the front-runner based on policy changes at the agency and public input, according to officials.

An aerial view of the dump site, facing west. To the left of the image is Calumet Park.

Numerous neighbors and park advocates oppose the agency’s plans, saying the site selection process was “flawed and mismanaged” and an expanded site is ill-prepared to face rising Lake Michigan levels that badly damaged the lakefront this winter.

Southeast Side residents have gone through the wringer, fighting environmental threats from petcoke to manganese to General Iron’s planned move, said Ders Anderson, Greenways Director for conservation group Openlands.

Despite the constant battles, much progress has been made recently in terms of land use, Anderson said. Old industry has been repurposed, parks have been beautified and investment near the Pullman National Monument has given the entire area a boost.

An expanded dump site flies in the face of that progress and is “certainly not going to help” attract a developer to the massive, long-dormant South Works site nearby, he said.

“Why in the world would you justify taking industrial waste and saying, ‘We’re going to keep it in the landfill in the middle of the neighborhood?'” Anderson said.

During a public comment period last year, Openlands joined fellow conservationists Friends of the Parks in proposing the Army Corps ship the dredged sediment to private landfills rather than expand its current site.

It’s been done before. Federal and Indiana state agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps, dredged sediment from a portion of the Grand Calumet River near East Chicago, Ind. in 2014. Contaminated material was stored in the Newton County Landfill.

Landfills are “potentially viable for small-scale applications,” but the Army Corps did not explore the option for its Chicago plan. Officials cited high costs and “no guarantee” that landfills would be able to maintain capacity for the sediment through the 20-year plan.

In Indiana, 360,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment were sent to landfills; the total project cost was $88.1 million. The Chicago expansion plan would store 530,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment at a total cost of $88.5 million.

A major factor in keeping expansion costs down: The dump site is on land owned by the Chicago Park District, which does not charge the Army Corps for its use.

Some neighbors are frustrated, believing the Army Corps is reneging on its commitment to return the lakefront property to the Park District once it reaches capacity.

In its report, the agency acknowledges its new plans would likely delay the creation of parkland on-site by at least 25 years. Officials maintain that the site will become open space “in perpetuity” once dredging operations cease.

“It’s unjust to the neighborhoods that would’ve had a 30-acre park on the lake that’s being taken away from them,” Anderson said. Expanding Calumet Park to include river views would create one of the most “striking” public sites in the city, he said.

But it doesn’t appear public outcry will make a difference.

“Public opposition to the creation of a new [dump site] does not pose a risk to [the city] providing the necessary [land access] for the project,” the report reads.

The controversy over parkland is just one example of the Army Corps acknowledging residents’ concerns over the expansion plan, while still recommending it over the alternatives.

Local residents and advocacy groups have asked the Army Corps to treat the waste stored at the site to reduce potential pollution, but in a report officials said the treatment of contaminated sediment is “unproven” and not cost-effective.

Other common concerns address Lake Michigan’s water levels and the agency’s plan to continue filtering wastewater from the site and discharging it into the Calumet River. These concerns have not significantly changed the Army Corps’ approach.

To these concerns, the agency responded that water levels are expected to subside from recent record highs, and that the facility’s discharges into the river have always followed state regulations.

Neighbors’ input should be prioritized as the Army Corps finalizes its plan, said Gina Ramirez, Midwest outreach manager for the National Resources Defense Council.

“The Southeast Side is already overwhelmed with pollution,” Ramirez said. “We need long-term, sustainable solutions that make our neighborhoods more livable. This can only happen if Southeast Siders play an essential role in deciding how our community develops.”

Public comment on the plan will be accepted by email through Aug. 17.

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