Climate change could trigger toxic disasters along Lake Michigan, new report finds

A report released Wednesday warns that rising lake levels, strong wind gusts and high waves are inching closer to flooding hazardous spots in northern Illinois, including coal, nuclear and Superfund sites.

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Waukegan’s shoreline is full of environmental hazards, including a coal-power plant, nearby coal ash ponds, four toxic-waste sites and other sources of industrial pollution.

Waukegan’s shoreline is full of environmental hazards, including a coal-power plant, nearby coal ash ponds, four toxic-waste sites and other sources of industrial pollution.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

Rising Lake Michigan levels, strong wind gusts and waves of nearly 10 feet high, all from extreme weather brought on by climate change, pose toxic threats to the entire lakefront — stretching from Zion to the Southeast Side and even to Northwest Indiana, a new analysis finds.

A just-released report examines possible climate-related disasters caused by high lake levels, powerful storms and erosion along Lake Michigan.

The report, by Chicago’s Environmental Law and Policy Center, largely focuses on toxic hazards in four states bordering the lake but also notes that densely populated neighborhoods — including Rogers Park, Edgewater and Uptown on the North Side and South Shore on the South Side — face potentially devastating flooding if weather patterns continue as they have. Large parts of those areas may face more severe flooding as much as a half-mile inland.

“Lake Michigan is where we live, work and play,” said ELPC Executive Director Howard Learner in an interview. “Climate change is forcing us to see another side of Lake Michigan.”

Using government data, study authors simulated different flood levels and mapped the potential impacts.

In a seven-year period that began with a historic low in 2013, the average level of Lake Michigan rose 6 feet. If those swings, along with high wind and waves continue, toxic-waste Superfund sites, a recently closed coal plant in Waukegan north of Chicago and a dismantled nuclear plant in Zion all represent an opportunity for water to “breach facility barriers and carry industrial pollutants to surrounding areas and into Lake Michigan,” the report said.

“A major storm surge, combined with high lake levels, could simultaneously flood streets, homes and businesses from Zion to the Southeast Side of Chicago,” according to the report, which also looked at hazards in Wisconsin, Indiana and Michigan. “A major flood could also threaten public health by carrying contaminants, such as PCBs and heavy metals into populous neighborhoods.”

PCBs are shorthand for polychlorinated biphenyls, a once widely used cancer-causing industrial chemical, that is now banned.

The PCB chemicals are present at the former location of Outboard Marine, one of four Superfund toxic-waste sites in Waukegan. Those sites neighbor the recently closed NRG Energy coal plant and nearby coal-ash ponds. The other Superfund locations are Johns-Manville and two formerly operated by North Shore Gas. The combination of toxic sources — all built decades ago — in the city of almost 90,000 people makes it stand out in Illinois as they all “create significant risk and potential problems,” Learner said.

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An aerial view of construction in Lake Michigan near Waukegan Municipal Beach and North Beach just south of the Waukegan industrial area.

Brian Ernst/Sun-Times

In addition to cleaning up the toxic sites and reassessing them as a potential threat, government officials need to consider natural remedies such as wetlands restoration and green infrastructure, such as vegetated landscaping, Learner said.

Zoning and planning also needs to be re-evaluated, he added.

“Policymakers need to rethink the Lake Michigan shore’s built environment,” Learner said, and “make decisions based on today’s realities.”

Just north of Waukegan, spent nuclear fuel is encased along the lake in Zion. The nuclear plant there was shut down in 1998 and its dismantling, now completed, began more than a decade ago. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission, said government officials continue to inspect the site to ensure that it’s safe and not a health or environmental hazard. But there’s no place for the fuel to be transferred and, therefore, there is not a timeline for removing it.

The ELPC report urges regulators to update their reviews for protection against potential flooding, something the nuclear commission spokeswoman said is ongoing.

On the Southeast Side, several locations, including a closed scrap-metal operation by Sims Metal, a dump for Calumet River dredged material and a shipping terminal managed by the Illinois International Port District all contain toxic materials that can spread to neighborhoods and into the lake if flooded, the report said.

Just to the east, in Northwest Indiana, a number of current and former industrial sites raise pollution concerns, including the U.S. Steel Gary Works and the now-demolished State Line coal plant, the report noted.

Other threats remain, including a lakeside wastewater treatment plant in South Haven, Michigan, as well as two wastewater facilities in Manitowoc and Two Rivers in Wisconsin. Areas of the Alliant Edgewater coal plant and its ash ponds in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, may also be vulnerable to flood waters, the report said.

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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