What’s next for the Army Corps’ lakefront dump?

A U.S. Army Corps plan to expand a toxic dump on Lake Michigan’s shoreline in South Chicago is getting increased attention because it rejected community concerns over the project and dismisses alternatives promoted by environmental groups.

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Aerial view of disposal facility located on Lake Michigan’s shore near 95th Street

US Army Corps of Engineers

Aerial view of disposal facility located on Lake Michigan’s shore near 95th Street

A U.S. Army Corps plan to expand a toxic dump on Lake Michigan’s shoreline in South Chicago is getting increased attention — particularly since the corps released a final plan and environmental impact statement in June that rejects community concerns over the project and dismisses alternatives promoted by environmental groups.

The 45-acre site at Calumet Harbor, where the Calumet River opens onto Lake Michigan at 95th Street, has held polluted sediment dredged from the river and other waterways in a confined disposal facility since 1984. That facility will be filled to ground level in the next couple of years, and the original plan was to cap it and transform it into public park space. The corps is now planning to install another dump on top of the old one, rising 25 feet and operating for another 20 years — although its plan recommends considering operations beyond that time frame.

Growing interest and opposition to the plan was underscored by a Chicago Sun-Times editorial this week, arguing that the corps’ plan is “a bad idea” for several reasons.

It would bring yet more pollution to South Chicago, a working-class, minority community that has had more than its share of toxic development. It ignores the risk of rising lake levels and damaged shore protection for a facility storing polychlorinated biphenyls, also known as PCBs, mercury and other toxins on the lakefront. It reduces public access to the lakefront, leaves the city and the Chicago Park District on the hook for safety costs when and if the dump is closed, and makes redevelopment of the old U.S. Steel site to the north more challenging.

The Chicago Sun-Times also made the case for the the alternative approach backed by environmentalists: a coordinated effort to reduce toxins flowing into the Calumet River, using clean sediment for roadbeds and ecosystem restoration, and hauling polluted dredge by barge or truck to landfills located away from residential communities.

But as of now, the corps has announced its preferred option in its final plan. An extended public comment period ended Monday and the corps is now expected to respond to those comments — including what one observer called “a fairly critical letter” from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, calling for more attention to environmental justice and the impact of climate change on the project’s viability. Expectations that the corps will change course, however, are low.

What happens next?

The project requires local sponsors, and the Chicago Department of Transportation and Chicago Park District signed letters of intent in May to take on that role. But those letters “were careful to leave room to talk about the design,” said Patricia Sharkey, an environmental lawyer and board member at Friends of the Parks. “The city and park district absolutely still have time to take another look at this.”

If all the agencies get on board and the plan is ratified, it’s quite possible opponents will go to court to challenge the environmental impact statement.

“This is a deficient EIS with a deficient cost-benefit analysis,” Sharkey said. Under the National Environmental Policy Act and the Clean Water Act, alternatives have to be fully considered. Opponents insist that they haven’t been.

They reject the corps’ position that reducing pollution flowing into the Calumet River and other channels is beyond its jurisdiction. The corps doesn’t have direct authority, but “it has the responsibility to provide leadership and to collaborate with other federal and local agencies,” said Ders Anderson, greenways director at Openlands, a metropolitan conservation organization.

He said pollution could be reduced by requiring companies that store chemicals along the river to cover their supplies and by requiring owners of brownfields to cap their properties with ground cover. That could significantly reduce the amount of polluted dredge material that has to be contained.

They also reject the corps’ contention that private landfill capacity isn’t assured over the next two decades. The corps estimates it will have to dump 25,000 cubic yards of toxic sediment in the lakefront facility each year, which averages out to three or four truckloads per day, Anderson said. Illinois and Indiana landfills currently have 85 million cubic yards of capacity, and they are developing new facilities constantly, he said.

He points to a similar corps project that dredged 360,000 cubic yards of sediment from the Grand Calumet River near East Chicago, Indiana, and stored it at a landfill 50 miles away, at a cost nearly identical to what the corps projects for the Lake Michigan disposal facility.

The real costs of protecting the proposed dump from higher lake levels and heavier storm events because of  climate change haven’t been properly considered, Anderson said. That includes danger from the Calumet Harbor breakwater, which may require expensive improvements — particularly because it now protects the shore from storm events from the north and east but not from the southeast.

According to Sharkey, the corps’ finding that the lakefront dump is more cost effective than storage in private landfills depends in part on shifting the long-term costs of securing the dump after it’s closed to the city and park district. On top of that, the park district is providing the land at no cost while the corps operates the dump.

The costs not included in the corps’ analysis also include the loss of a potential destination park space, combining lakefront and riverfront, with open spaces and picnic areas and a unique opportunity to watch Great Lake cargo ships enter the Calumet River, Anderson said. It would be a significant boost to efforts to reinvest in the Southeast Side, adding to recent projects such as the Pullman National Monument, the Big Marsh bike path and Steelworkers Park.

“This could be tied up in litigation for years if they insist on going forward with it,” Sharkey said. “We’d rather not do that, but if we need to, we will.”

There’s also a role for the state legislature, Sharkey said, because the facility was originally built out into the lake on lakebed land. The state’s public trust law requires state approval for uses of lands underlying navigable waterways.

Because the General Assembly originally approved the corps’ use of the land until the current facility was filled, Sharkey believes another act of approval is now required of the legislature. The new plan also takes an additional four acres of lakebed for a new loading dock, which also requires approval, she said.

“That could be a fight,” she said.

The corps also has to renew its water quality permit with the Illinois EPA next year, Sharkey said. That could be yet another fight. According to the Sierra Club, the annual checks on water quality near the current dump show pollution that’s “much higher than applicable water quality standards” — which “would indicate that the CDF is leaking.”

The Army Corps maintains that water quality testing around the facility has found no evidence of leaks.

“Everything is focused right now on getting [the corps] to turn this ship in the right direction,” Sharkey said. “If they’re going forward with it, we’re going to be turning our attention to these other arenas.”

And that could mean rough waters for the corps’ project for the foreseeable future.