Editor’s note: This column has been updated to include comment by the Army Corps provided after original publication. See below.

At the same time that Chicago is asking the federal government to declare a disaster due to “catastrophic lakefront erosion,” city officials committed to spending millions of dollars to help the feds expand a dump for highly toxic material right on the lakeshore.

And while the mayor’s office says Mayor Lori Lightfoot is committed to a “proactive environmental agenda that puts equity at its center,” that commitment means city funding will go to extending a legacy that South Chicago residents characterize as environmental racism.


South Chicago lakeshore dump raises environmental justice and climate crisis concerns

The commitment was made by the administration of former Mayor Rahm Emanuel several years ago, and the new administration appears to be stuck with it. 

Last Friday, Lightfoot stood with Sen. Richard Durbin and Lt. Gov. Juliana Stratton to call on the federal government to declare the city’s lakefront a national disaster area. On Monday, the Chicago City Council’s Committee on Health and Environmental Protection passed a resolution declaring a “state of climate emergency,” citing “catastrophic lakefront erosion.”

Meanwhile, according to a draft plan issued by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the city would be on the hook for 25% to 35% of design and construction costs for expanding a confined disposal facility — located on Lake Michigan’s shore near 95th Street — to store highly toxic sediment dredged from the Calumet River. That means the Chicago Department of Transportation would contribute at least $1.85 million for what will eventually total $7.4 million.

Community organizations and environmental advocates are raising concerns about the threat to the water quality of Lake Michigan — especially with unprecedented storms ravaging existing lakefront protective structures, including some installed by the Army Corps — from storing material containing highly toxic pollutants including PCBs and heavy metals such as mercury right on the lakefront. They’re also concerned about more dumping in a working-class minority neighborhood that already has eight landfills and numerous polluting industries.

10th Ward Ald. Sue Garza opposed the city’s decision to become a co-sponsor of the project when it was under discussion, said John Heroff, Garza’s director of policy and legislative affairs. She also proposed transporting material to landfill sites outside the city, he said. “We don’t think it should be in the 10th Ward,” Heroff said. “We have more than our fair share of dumps.”

Heroff is waiting for the Army Corps’ final report — it was due last week but has been postponed with no indication of when it will be released — to see how it responds to issues raised about a hydraulic connection between the disposal facility and the lake, and to get more detail about how the corps decided this plan was the lowest-cost alternative.

“For one thing, they didn’t take into account the cost to the public of loss of access to park land,” Heroff said, or of other costs, including increased protection from climate change-related storm surges, and securing and maintaining the facility when it is at capacity.

One reason the cost estimates may be skewed is that charges by private landfill companies include the cost of capping and securing operations after they are closed, said Pat Sharkey, a board member of Friends of the Parks. The Army Corps plan entirely disregards those costs, which would be borne by the Chicago Park District.

“We think this is a moment when the city should step up, especially since they will have significant financial responsibility if the plan proceeds,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks. “The city should be thinking about this in a future-related way. There will be big opportunity costs if they let [the corps] build a pollution dump for 20 years on the lakefront.” 

Those include “limiting the attractiveness of the South Works site [just north of the disposal facility] for development as a high-quality community if you have a 25-foot mound of pollution within sight and leaking into the water,” she said.

Just south of the disposal facility, Calumet Beach is completely underwater, the lakefront path there is crumbling due to erosion, and the beach house “has taken a beating this winter,” Patch reported.

Perhaps the city should take another look at this — otherwise their commitment to environmental justice and lakeshore protection could take a beating as well.

Update: Feb. 19, 2020 — A release of the final plan for the confined disposal facility is expected in early March, pending a high-level review, Army Corps officials said in a phone conversation after this article was posted. A 30-day public comment period will follow its release. Public comments from the previous draft and the corps’ responses will be included in an appendix, they said.

Regarding rising lake levels, Army Corps Project Manager Mike Padilla said the plan will meet stringent corps standards for addressing climate change impacts. He noted that there’s a strong revetment around the facility and said that dredge deposits will be set back from the lakeshore on higher ground. He said the corps studied the possibility of reducing pollutants entering the Calumet River but did not find much opportunity to do that due to the large number of industrial sources of pollution along the river. He pointed out that the corps has no authority to regulate private landowners along the river. He said that the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District’s new McCook and Thornton reservoirs, built with corps participation, have reduced pollution in the river to some extent by drawing off stormwater to the facilities, where water is treated and pollutants are removed.

Army Corps Planner Alex Hoxsie said that testing of water quality in and around the facility for pollutants, as required by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, has found no evidence of contaminants leaking from the facility into Lake Michigan. Sediment is tested according to the Great Lakes Dredged Material Testing and Evaluation Manual, he said.

Curtis is an opinion writer for The Chicago Reporter.

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