For nearly 40 years, a large pond along the Lake Michigan shoreline on the Southeast Side has been the dumping area for massive volumes of materials — a sizable amount of it toxic — dredged from the bottom of the Calumet River.
Among the harmful metals and chemicals extracted over decades: lead, mercury, arsenic, cyanide, cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls, known as PCBs.
“It’s some pretty awful stuff,” said Stacy Meyers, senior counsel for the conservation organization Openlands.
The so-called confined disposal facility, built by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, was initially planned as an interim site for the river sediment removed from an industrial area of Chicago so commercial boats could navigate the Calumet River and Calumet Harbor in and out of Lake Michigan.
In fact, many residents believed the area, which is immediately next to Calumet Park, would later be converted into a park as far back as the mid-1990s. The land, once used as a dumping ground for the former nearby steel mills, is actually owned by the Chicago Park District.
The park, though, was never built. And now, the Army Corps and the city of Chicago are advancing a plan to expand the site that will delay the conversion to parkland for at least another two decades. Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s environmental agency is expected to make a determination on the expansion sometime next year after the Army Corps files a formal plan for its expanded operation.
“It’s very unfair to the community,” said Marie Collins-Wright, a nearby resident for more than three decades.
What’s more, some groups are pointing to government studies they say suggest the facility may be contaminating fish and leaching into the lake. The Army Corps says its own monitoring and analysis shows the site is contained and the lake is safe. An expansion will potentially be even more protective, officials say.
The opponents say climate change creates a threat as severe storms pound the shoreline, creating erosion and potentially causing toxic material to spill into Lake Michigan, a source of drinking water and recreation for millions.
“There are people swimming at the beach right there,” said Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of the community advocacy group Alliance of the Southeast, referring to Calumet Park Beach near East 99th Street.
The Army Corps has applied for an extension of an existing state permit to operate on the Southeast Side lakeshore site and is expected to apply for another permit that will allow it to continue storing dredged materials with an expanded facility that is proposed to be built 20 feet high above and around the pond.
NietoGomez’s group is aligned with two conservation organizations, Openlands and Friends of the Parks, who want the Army Corps and the city to reconsider the proposed expansion. They also are asking Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s Administration to consider tougher oversight of the existing containment. The Environmental Law and Policy Center in Chicago is representing the groups, though no legal action has been taken yet.
Added ELPC attorney Kiana Courtney, “It should be a park, but it should be cleaned up and people should not be exposed to” contaminants.
Between 1984 and 2018, the Army Corps stored 1.5 million cubic yards of dredged sediment at the 43-acre site, which includes the large containment pond. Once an expanded containment site is built, it is expected to operate for about 20 years.
The Army Corps says it has few options, and a previously proposed plan in recent years to open a second facility nearby met with much outcry from area residents.
“The opposition to find a new site was much, much greater — people did not want a new facility in their backyard,” said Michael Padilla, the Army Corps project manager on the facility.
In a statement, the city’s Department of Transportation said after multiple locations were studied, the existing site was “the most practical option” and “was furthest from residential communities in the area.”
City and federal officials have said dredging is critical to local and Illinois economies and needs to be done continuously, especially as lake levels rise and fall. The dredged material contains dust and debris that fall into the river from the heavy industrial operations along the river. Placing the material in a pond is designed to filter and then discharge clean water back into the river while the dredged material remains contained.
Some of the opposition groups have suggested alternatives such as reducing the pollution that goes into the river and carrying the material by barge to an actual landfill somewhere in Illinois or Indiana, though Padilla said the alternatives aren’t feasible or practical.
“We’ve answered these questions many, many times,” Padilla said.
From the late 1800s until just before the containment site was built, the dredged material was taken out to the middle of Lake Michigan and dumped, a practice that later ran afoul of the federal Clean Water Act of 1972.
Joel Brammeier, chief executive of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said the project adds to the burden of a Southeast Side community that is already near clusters of heavy industry. His organization published a report earlier this year that suggested a rethinking of land use for the heavily industrial Southeast Side.
“This fight is about keeping Lake Michigan clean and making sure everyone in the region can enjoy the Calumet River and Lake Michigan in a healthy way,” Brammeier said.
Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.