Protect Lake Michigan from toxic sites along its shore, while there’s still time

Higher water levels, wind and waves from bigger storms could wash contaminants from hazardous sites into the lake.

SHARE Protect Lake Michigan from toxic sites along its shore, while there’s still time

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

Toxic contaminants stored near the shores of Lake Michigan are poised to poison the drinking water that makes Chicago the envy of much of the world.

The time to remove that threat is now. Toxic materials must be buffered from the lake, and techniques such as wetlands restoration and green infrastructure should be employed to manage rising lake levels as much as possible. Green infrastructure includes such things as permeable pavers; landscaping including rain gardens and green roofs, and open areas that absorb and filter stormwater.

If lake levels reach new highs as expected after stretches of bigger storms, strong winds and waves during extreme weather could wash water inland, carrying hazardous materials back into the lake, ready to be piped into municipal water systems and to befoul the habitat.

High water has spread environmental catastrophe before. In Japan, a 2011 tsunami caused severe radiation contamination because a nuclear plant was not sufficiently protected. After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans was awash in hazardous materials of every description after waters breached the city’s defenses, as had long been predicted, and flooded chemical plants, refineries, Superfund sites, service stations, pest control businesses and dry cleaners.

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As Brett Chase reported in Wednesday’s Sun-Times, a study released Wednesday by the Environmental Law & Policy Center found 12 areas along the lake in Illinois and Indiana, Michigan and Wisconsin that are a threat, including industrial property, Superfund sites, wastewater facilities and a nuclear waste storage area. Coal ash from the demolished State Line Generating Plant in Hammond that contains carcinogenic heavy metals could flow into neighborhoods along the Grand Calumet River and Little Calumet River. The report is just a starting point and does not “encompass the full scope of hazards along the shore,” it said.

The study, based on data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also identified communities along the lake where homes and other facilities are vulnerable in an era of climate change, despite those communities spending $878 million over the past two years to repair damage from high water.

Among the communities at risk are Rogers Park, Edgewater, Uptown and South Shore, where PCBs and heavy metals could wash ashore, driven by wind and waves at times of high water.

“It’s definitely a concern,” said Jennifer Walling, executive director of the Illinois Environmental Council. “We have thought about Lake Michigan as being a really attractive place to live as climate change happens.”

The report examines the impact of four possible flood levels, from 584 to 589 feet above sea level, compared with the current level of about 580 feet. Scientists expect record lows and highs in the future, but more record highs. It took six years to go from the last record low to the most recent record high of 582.20 feet, reached in 2020.

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“Industrial facility owners, policymakers, officials and community leaders need to assess the vulnerabilities to toxic and hazardous materials,” Howard Learner, president and executive director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center, said on Wednesday. “We need to change land use planning, zoning and land use development decision-making to reflect today’s reality.”

Communities affected by climate change are all too used to sitting on their hands, even when environmental threats are looming. In Utah, officials have been frozen in inaction, even as they watch their beloved Great Salt Lake shrivel away for lack of water, some of it diverted to unnecessary lawn-watering. Airborne arsenic and other dangerous contaminants blown from the dry lake bed threaten to fill people’s lungs.

It’s easy to take Lake Michigan’s high-quality water for granted, or to assume there is plenty of time to protect it. But when strong winds and powerful waves are pummeling toxic sites, it will be too late.

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