Don’t keep dumping toxic muck in what should be a Southeast Side park

Don't keep dumping toxic muck in what should be a Southeast Side park

Prime potential parkland is the least suitable place to pile up tainted dredged material, but that’s what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers plans to do on the Southeast Side. The Army Corps should rethink matters and find a way to dispose of the material without storing it along the lakefront in a so-called “confined disposal facility” next to parks.

On Monday, the Friends of the Parks and the Alliance of the Southeast sued to stop the Army Corps from expanding the facility. But it shouldn’t require a federal lawsuit to get the Army Corps to find an environmentally viable solution.

The 45 acres of reclaimed land at the mouth of the Calumet River was expected to become a park in 1995 under a deal cut long ago in Springfield. As envisioned, the site would have connected Calumet Park on the south to Steelworkers Park on the north and whittled away at the amount of Chicago shoreline that is not yet parkland.

Yet the Army Corps wants to continue using the site to store sediment dredged from the Calumet Harbor and Calumet River to keep the channel open for tugboats, barges, and ships. But the sediment is tainted with mercury, PCBs, lead, and other toxins — and the Army Corps wants to keep piling it up until the accumulated material is 25 feet higher than the adjoining parks.

Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring for completion in 2025 and will extend the use of the site as a confined disposal facility for 25 years.

But that will only put off the day when the Army Corps must find a different solution after the enlarged disposal facility fills up. Toxins will continue to run off into the water from parking lots and other industrial areas and settle in the muck that must be dredged.

Fighting a legacy of pollution

The 10th Ward already is an environmental justice community dealing with various contaminants because of its industrial legacy, including steel mills and current industrial operations, as Alliance of the Southeast Executive Director Amalia NietoGomez told us. She said that adding more to the Calumet site poses a risk to families who picnic, play sports, and swim nearby.

”We don’t want any more toxic stuff,” NietoGomez said.

Because Lake Michigan levels are expected to vary between record lows and record highs due to climate change, the confined disposal facility is potentially vulnerable to stronger wave action that could wash accumulated tainted sentiment back into the lake. The site is protected by only a dirt berm, not concrete.

That should be a major worry, but Friends of the Parks Executive Director Juanita Irizarry told us part of the problem might be that concerns about climate change and environmental justice were shrunk under the Trump administration when some of the project planning was taking place.

Instead, the Army Corps explored a limited number of options for the existing site, all in the 10th Ward, said Howard Learner, executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, handling the lawsuit. The Army Corps did not “rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives outside of the 10th Ward,” Learner wrote in an email. For its part, the Army Corps said it made an environmental impact statement of the plan.

Because the site is so close to the Indiana line — people who swim off the nearby beach sometimes cross the line — options involving moving sediment across the state line become much more complicated as various laws govern such activities. Illinois and Indiana are interested in upgrading the site to a park.

The Army Corps should be able to surmount such complications and find a solution that works for the Southeast Side, shipping, and the environment. It should do so.

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