EAST SIDE — Local environmental activists are suing the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to block the agency’s plan to expand a lakefront dump site for polluted sediment on the Southeast Side.
Nonprofits Alliance of the Southeast and Friends of the Parks filed a lawsuit Monday in U.S. District Court, alleging the Army Corps has no authority to build a dumpsite on top of its existing facility.
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.
Neighbors and park advocates have opposed the expansion, saying the process to determine where to store sediment once the dump fills up was “flawed and mismanaged.”
The Army Corps violated federal laws by approving the “vertical expansion” project without properly considering environmental impacts or alternatives, according to the lawsuit.
Among other concerns, the Army Corps did not “fully and fairly evaluate the cumulative impacts” of building the expansion on the Southeast Side, the lawsuit reads.
Residents and environmental activists have called on the city to enact a cumulative impact ordinance. Such an ordinance would require land use decisions to consider not only how a single proposed facility would impact the environment, but also its context among the environmental impacts of nearby facilities.
“Chicago’s Southeast Side is already overburdened, and we don’t need an expansion to add more toxic dredgings from the river right next to Calumet Park, where families gather, do sports, have picnics, and play in the water,” Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of Alliance of the Southeast, said in a statement. “We are tired of being the dumping ground for toxic materials in the city.”
The Army Corps considered building a facility at four other sites along the Calumet River: the former KCBX north terminal near 100th Street, the former Wisconsin Steel site near 106th Street and two sites near 116th Street and Burley Avenue.
All proposals, including the vertical expansion, are in the 10th Ward.
The agency determined building a facility elsewhere posed a higher risk of contamination, delays in acquiring the property and public opposition compared to expanding the existing site, according to a 2020 report.
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.
The dump site “lingers on our lakefront as a remnant of previous eras’ zoning and environmental policies,” Juanita Irizarry, Friends of the Parks executive director, said in a statement.
“It is a travesty to continue to designate prime lakefront park land, that is next to other parks and beaches, for a toxic dump,” Irizarry said. “Now is the moment to close or move the [facility] to a new location outside of the 10th Ward or any other environmental justice community.”
The Army Corps recently applied to the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency for approval to complete the project, spokesperson Michael Padilla said Monday. The expansion plans met all environmental compliance requirements, and the agency monitors the site’s operations to prevent harmful impacts to water quality, Padilla said.
A construction contract for the expansion is expected to be awarded this fall, while the project is set to be completed in fiscal year 2025, according to the Army Corps.
The now-recommended “vertical expansion” was not considered a viable option in the Army Corps’ 2015 draft plan, but it became the front-runner based on policy changes at the agency and public input, officials have said.
Calumet River dredging last took place in 2020, while the state in 2021 issued a one-year permit allowing the facility to keep operating.
Dredging of the Calumet Harbor last occurred in 2022, according to the Army Corps. The agency benefits the harbor and river by facilitating navigation and removing contaminated material from the waterways, Padilla said
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