South Chicago lakeshore dump raises environmental justice and climate crisis concerns

Residents oppose the Army Corps’ plan to expand a longstanding facility for polluted sediment, saying they’re “tired of being the city’s dumping ground.”

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Source: U.S. Army Corps of Engineers

A draft version of an Army Corps plan released last year showed the corps has tentatively decided to store polluted dredged material in a huge 25-foot-high mound on a site just south of Calumet that's hosted a disposal facility since 1984.

Facing opposition from community and environmental groups, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has postponed release of a plan to expand a dump for polluted sediment dredged from the Calumet River that’s located on Lake Michigan near 95th Street.

The delay comes as new documents raise questions about how safely the facility — located in a low-income, minority “environmental justice community” — has actually been operated by the Army Corps, and whether it’s impacting the drinking water for residents of three states.

According to advocates, the dredged material management plan was originally expected this week. They say they’ve been told it will come out later this month. An Army Corps spokesperson didn’t respond to a request for comment.

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A draft version of the plan released last year showed the corps has tentatively decided to store polluted dredged material in a huge, 25-foot-high mound at a 45-acre site, on land owned by the Chicago Park District, that has hosted what’s called a confined disposal facility (or CDF) for river sediment since 1984. The sediment has to be contained because it has high levels of dangerous chemicals including PCBs, mercury and other heavy metals from industrial pollution in the area. 

The facility — you could call it a hazardous waste dump, except that environmental law doesn’t categorize dredged material as “waste” — was built in shallow lakeshore water that was walled off with dirt berms by the corps some years after it was decided that dumping the sludge directly into the lake was harmful. Over the next 30 years the site was filled in with dredged sediment. It’s projected to be at capacity, at ground level, by 2022. 

Now the corps wants to continue dumping there for another 20 years. 

The plan has raised environmental justice concerns, because the facility sits on the eastern edge of South Chicago, a black and Latino working-class community that is home to a number of polluting industries — and to eight landfills that were closed after a city ban was enacted in 1985. The ban doesn’t cover dredged material. But even conventional landfills that don’t handle highly toxic material operate with far more stringent protocols for protecting groundwater than the Army Corps facility does, said Patricia Sharkey, an environmental lawyer and board member of Friends of the Parks.

“The Southeast Side is tired of being the dumping ground of the city,” said Amalia Nieto Gomez, executive director of the Alliance of the Southeast. “We are already unfairly burdened.”

The area was found decades ago to have notably higher cancer death rates compared to the rest of the city.

“We were originally told [by the corps] it was impossible to expand the existing CDF,” Nieto Gomez said. But after 8,500 residents signed a petition against a proposal to open a new dump site in the area, “that’s the plan they came up with.” The current facility was to be capped with a protective layer of ground cover and returned to the park district after closure.

The park district is providing the lakefront property free of charge to the corps, according to the draft plan. According to the draft, the plan was developed in partnership with the city and the park district. But when FOTP submitted a freedom of information request, they were told there was no written record of any discussions between the corps and the district, according to comments on the draft submitted by FOTP.

A spokesperson for the park district said the corps “has access to the land until completion of the dredging project.”

Documents released to FOTP after an information request to the corps — seeking data to back up the draft plan’s contention that the existing facility “has operated safely” since its construction in 1984 — “raised red flags,” Sharkey said. They showed that a geotech liner installed during construction was torn in numerous places and supplemented by piling sand on top. They also showed that water levels inside the facility continued to follow the rise and fall of lake levels — though with a lag after the sand was piled on — indicating that the disposal facility remained “in hydraulic connection” with the lake, she said. “That means water is flowing in and out” at a site that’s “directly upstream from Calumet Park and Calumet Beach.”

Other documents showed that the corps wasn’t testing nearby water for a number of highly toxic chemicals, including PCBs, mercury and arsenic, after petitioning the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency to scale back testing, Sharkey said. She added that the draft environmental impact statement had no reference to the Illinois Pollution Control Board’s Lake Michigan Basin Water Quality Standards, which she said are far more stringent than the standards used by the Corps to declare the facility safe. Under the Clean Water Act, federal projects are required to meet state standards.

“I think it should give the public pause,” said Sharkey. “They took sediment that’s too toxic to dump in the lake and put it right on the shore,” storing “a million tons of toxic dredge in a facility that’s not subject to any landfill requirements in the state, despite data that shows it has high levels of hazardous constituents.”

The credibility of the Corps is a factor here — for one thing, due to its claim that “changing climatic conditions in the future would not have a significant impact” on the proposed expansion. That’s from the draft issued last April. Since then lake levels have risen and storm surges have battered the shore with unprecedented 20-foot waves.

“It was revetments built by the Army Corps of Engineers that failed these last couple of years at Northerly Island and Rogers Park beach,” said FOTP Executive Director Juanita Irizarry. “It’s hard to be sure that what they build here will survive” — particularly with climate change impacts increasing in coming years. 

“We’ve seen storm surges moving concrete slabs around and carrying them out into the lake,” said Sharkey. 

In comments on the draft plan, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has seconded these concerns, noting the Corps “did not consider the vertically expanded CDF’s ability to withstand extreme water and wave events over the period of analysis and beyond,” and recommending the corps address the impact of rising lake levels and other climate change factors.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, whose transportation department is a partner in the project, just issued a local disaster proclamation covering Chicago’s lakeshore due to major damage caused by severe weather last month.

The EPA also raised other issues in its comments, calling the corps’ environmental justice analysis incomplete and noting the draft failed to address the potential for exposure to nearby residents from airborne pollutants released during the year-long process of drying sediment and at other stages. The EPA also recommended the Army Corps make public all comments and its responses.

Critics argue there are viable and preferable alternatives — and that the Army Corps has only deemed expansion of the existing facility to be cost-effective by ignoring a number of factors.

First is the value of lakefront property. Sharkey notes with much dismay the draft plan’s contention that “there are no high-quality natural resources” in the area of the facility — somehow overlooking Lake Michigan. Then there is the cost of securing and maintaining the toxic dump after it’s closed. That will be borne by the park district — that is, by Chicago taxpayers — into the indefinite future.

A more far-sighted approach would focus on reducing pollution going into the Calumet River, said Ders Anderson, greenways director at the conservation group Openlands. The Corps’ draft gives cursory mention to “source reduction,” but no goals are set and it’s not incorporated into the plan.

But initial research by the corps has identified the chemical signatures of toxins in the river sediment and shown that most of them come from industrial properties along the river, Anderson said. Further study could pinpoint the most significant sources, and corrective action — better management at local industries or protective covering over chemicals stored along the river, for example — could reduce pollutants significantly, he said. 

“If the Army Corps is dredging 30,000 to 50,000 cubic yards a year and we could reduce it to 5,000 cubic yards, that would be significant,” he said.

That would make it feasible to truck sediment to landfills in the area, rather than dumping it on the lakefront, said Anderson. But that would require revisiting the corps’ requirement that sediment be stored within a half mile of the Calumet River. 

“The Army Corps came up with that requirement, but it’s very, very unfair to these communities to say this material has to stay in this area forevermore,” Anderson said. And it’s based mainly on transportation costs — which could be dramatically lowered with a source reduction plan. The corps also cites capacity issues at existing landfills, but Anderson said that’s a red herring, since landfill operators are constantly seeking new sites.

Anderson said that even at current volumes, it would take five or six truckloads a day traveling to existing landfills within 10 or 20 miles. “If you’re going to have environmental justice principles, you may have to pay a little bit more,” he said. But going forward it would probably save money — particularly considering the long-term costs of maintaining the lakefront dump.

The corps projects the entire cost of the expansion over 20 years to be $90 million. There is no discussion of costs — to the city and park district — after that.

Another thing: Irizarry points out that the lakefront site is covered by the state’s public trust doctrine, which gives any resident the right to go to court to challenge inappropriate uses of natural resources including lakebed land. She said state legislation and permits authorizing the CDF have always envisioned capping the site and turning it into parkland, and that the enabling legislation called for the site to be closed long ago.

Local organizer Nieto Gomez said residents want state and local agencies and elected officials to step up and ensure a better decision-making process takes place. “We don’t think the Army Corps has taken everything into account that it should have,” she said.

Correction: An earlier version of this post included a quote with incorrect information about how much sediment the Army Corps dredges each year.