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Give the Southeast Side a cleaner alternative to piling up waste from dredging

Instead of a promised park, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers wants to expand a contained disposal facility for another 20 years or more.

Amalia GomezNieto, executive director and lead organizer at Alliance of the SouthEast, poses for a picture on the lakefront on Oct. 14. Behind the breakwater is the confined disposal facility operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which it plans on expanding.
Amalia NietoGomez, executive director and lead organizer at Alliance of the SouthEast, poses for a picture on the lakefront on Oct. 14. Behind the breakwater is the confined disposal facility operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which it plans on expanding.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

More than 35 years ago, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers built its “confined disposal facility” (CDF) to dump dredging wastes from the Calumet River — containing toxic materials — on the Southeast Side along the Lake Michigan shoreline. The Army Corps pledged to close and seal this toxic dredge dump in the 1990s and convert the land into a new shoreline park to be enjoyed by community residents for years to come. That hasn’t happened.

The Army Corps is still using this dredge waste dump. Now, instead of the promised park, the Army Corps wants to expand the confined disposal facility for another 20 years or more. That would mean more toxic dredge wastes in the community along the shoreline, more threats from rising Lake Michigan water levels and no park, though it was long promised.

It’s time for better alternatives and more equitable approaches by the Army Corps, the Illinois EPA and the city of Chicago. The Army Corps is planning business as usual, while it should be looking at ways to reduce run-off and contamination that make dredge-dumping necessary, as well as alternative sites outside of the historically toxic-burdened Southeast Side and away from the rising tides of Lake Michigan.

The Alliance of the SouthEast, the Environmental Law & Policy Center, and Friends of the Parks submitted detailed comments to the Illinois EPA urging the agency to deny the Army Corps’ permit application to continue operating the disposal facility because it does not fully protect Lake Michigan and the surrounding communities. Our organizations are calling on the Army Corps to seal this toxic dredge dump, make it safe and convey it to the Chicago Park District.

Here’s what should happen now:

First, as the National Environmental Policy Act requires, the Army Corps should “rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives,” including reducing the amount of dredged materials and locating a new, safer storage facility for dredge wastes away from residential and environmental justice neighborhoods.

It’s also important to move toxic wastes away from the lakeshore because climate change is causing higher Lake Michigan water levels and storm surges that could affect safety at the toxic dredge dump. Why run the risks the confined disposal facility may already be leaking or could be breached, thereby resulting in toxic materials spilled into Lake Michigan?

The Army Corps should change its plans and stop asking the Illinois EPA for a permit to expand this toxic dredge dump.

Second, the Illinois EPA should deny the Army Corps’ requested permit to expand the disposal facility. That is the wrong direction to take. The disposal facility stores dredged Calumet River sediment containing mercury, PCBs, arsenic, barium, cadmium, manganese, chromium, copper and lead. The Illinois EPA should not allow the Army Corps to dump even more toxic dredge wastes at this lakefront site and make a bad problem worse.

Third, Mayor Lori Lightfoot and the city of Chicago should step up to oppose the expansion permit and instead support “rigorous exploration” of green infrastructure to reduce run-off into the waterways and alternative locations for a disposal facility that isn’t close to residential neighborhoods and in communities already burdened by environmental contamination. The mayor should support creation of the new shoreline public park for the Southeast Side community.

Our federal, state and city government leaders and agencies should pivot to advance better alternatives. Let’s avoid burdening the Southeast Side community with more toxic pollution threats and harms; protect Lake Michigan from the risks of toxic leaks and contamination along the shoreline; and create the new lakeshore park that was promised decades ago.

This is the time for better alternatives instead of misguided business as usual.

Amalia NietoGomez is executive director of the Alliance of the SouthEast, Howard Learner is executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, and Juanita Irizarry is executive director of Friends of the Parks.