EAST SIDE — State environmental regulators allowed a lakefront dump for polluted sediment to continue operating for another year, as the federal government awaits the state’s decision on long-term plans to expand the facility.
The Illinois Environmental Protection Agency approved a water pollution permit Friday for a “dredged material disposal facility” neighboring Calumet Park at the mouth of the Calumet River.
The 43-acre site, operated by the Army Corps of Engineers, stores sediment dredged from the Calumet River and five other federally maintained waterways in the city. Its permit was approved Friday and expires Nov. 30.
The Army Corps partially shut down the dump earlier this year, after its prior water pollution permit expired May 31.
A public input process led to special conditions on the new permit. They include a requirement that the Army Corps study whether the site could introduce more mercury and other toxic chemical compounds into the local food web.
But even with special conditions, “it’s still a permit to allow some level of pollution in a community that’s already overburdened,” said Kiana Courtney, staff attorney for the Environmental Law and Policy Center.
The permit approved Friday is separate from the Army Corps’ application for a “vertical expansion” of the site, which would see the agency build a facility on top of the current one if approved. The dump is set to reach its current capacity by 2022.
“We do not currently have a timeframe on the expansion application, but there will be a separate public comment period and a public hearing for the application for the vertical expansion,” said state EPA spokesperson Kim Biggs.
Some neighbors and park advocates oppose the expansion plans, saying the process to determine where to store sediment once the dump fills up was “flawed and mismanaged.”
With uncertainty over the long-term impacts of climate change on shoreline flooding and erosion, no decision on expanding a lakefront dump should be made until the Army Corps completes its upcoming shoreline study, environmental activists said Monday.
The study will review Chicago’s lakefront protection system, with particular attention to flooding between 67th and 73rd streets, a design for Promontory Point reinforcements and protections for the water purification plant near Rainbow Beach.
The Army Corps should add the dump site and nearby areas to its priorities for the shoreline study, said Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of Alliance of the Southeast.
“There is a public beach that touches the south point of the [dump],” NietoGomez said. “… It’s also very important that the toxins do not leech out into our drinking water.”
Critics also say the Army Corps is reneging on its commitment to return the lakefront property to the Park District once it reaches capacity.
The expansion will likely delay plans to restore the dump to parkland by at least 25 years. Army Corps officials maintain the site will become open space “in perpetuity” once the facility closes.
Activists are reaching out to legislators and other public officials, advocating to close and restore the dump site once it’s full, said Juanita Irizarry, Friends of the Parks executive director.
“As our legislators are working on implementations related to the new infrastructure bill and other federal processes, we’re updating them and looking for places where they might be able to intervene,” Irizarry said.
An Army Corps spokesperson did not respond to requests for comment Monday.
Southeast Siders’ frustration over the permit extension goes beyond the dump itself — “it’s about the cumulative impact” of recent developments around new and expanded industrial sites in the community, NietoGomez said.
The Army Corps’ permit was approved one day after the city held a virtual meeting to discuss its health impact assessment of the proposed Southside Recycling metal shredder.
City officials initially planned for a virtual session, rescheduled to an in-person hearing, then reversed course two days before the meeting was held Thursday. The changes caused “confusion and challenges” for attendees, health department spokesperson Ivonne Sambolin said in a public notice.
The permit was also approved a week after Ozinga acquired 140 acres at 11118 S. Buffalo Ave., according to Bisnow Chicago. It’s the concrete company’s latest step in an effort to build the Invert, a massive underground warehouse project.
The three projects are “all moving at once [with] major things happening within a week of each other — I don’t think it was any coincidence,” NietoGomez said.
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