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A Joliet barge operator is seeking authority to moor as many as 106 barges at a time at this site on the Illinois River. That’s made for some unhappy nearby homeowners.

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Illinois is ugly enough. Why make it worse with a new barge terminal on the Illinois River?

The proposal threatens a scenic, wooded stretch just northeast of Seneca in Grundy County, about a 90-minute drive from downtown Chicago. Neighbors aren’t happy.

A Joliet barge operator is seeking authority to moor as many as 106 barges at a time at this site on the Illinois River. That’s made for some unhappy nearby homeowners.
| Brian Rich / Sun-Times

Chicagoans have long looked north when they want to find natural beauty and outdoor recreation, preferring the lakes, forests and beaches of Wisconsin and Michigan to most of what Illinois has to offer.

The Illinois River, a working waterway devoted to commerce and industry, not to mention the repository for Chicago’s wastewater, usually is the last getaway destination on anyone’s mind.

But there is great beauty along the river, undeveloped places where eagles soar, fishermen prowl and weekend pleasure boaters party.

One such stretch is just northeast of Seneca in Grundy County, about a 90-minute drive from downtown Chicago.

Five years ago, Rick and Gloria Sims completed construction of their custom-built dream home there on 15 acres on the north bank of the river, just 500 feet across the water from a wooded shoreline.

Then, this spring, a Joliet barge operator, Illinois and Michigan Oil LLC, applied for government approval to put a new barge terminal on the river’s south bank — along that same wooded area across from the Sims’ home.

The application seeks permission to moor as many as 106 barges at a time — two to four across — along a 1.6-mile stretch of riverbank, a large operation by Illinois River standards. The company also proposes to dredge the river to a depth of 10 feet and build a 600-foot dock.

This, as you might imagine, is a nightmare development for Rick Sims, who ran a manufacturing company in Elgin before retiring here. As a hunter and fisherman who grew up in Kankakee, Sims has always found river life, even with its spring flooding and disruptive barge traffic, more to his liking than those northern lakes.

“I want my kids, grandkids, to come to this river forever,” he says.

Rick Sims at the wheel of his pontoon boat near the site of a proposed barge terminal along the Illinois River in Seneca.
Rick Sims at the wheel of his pontoon boat near the site of a proposed barge terminal along the Illinois River in Seneca.
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

But he never reckoned on having a barge-fleeting operation parked outside his back door — with all its potential downsides, not the least of which would be to ruin his view.

With the help of a few neighbors, Sims is trying to organize opposition to the project.

In some ways, this is just another not-in-my-backyard tale of someone worried about property values and quality of life, not normally my cup of tea.

But there are higher stakes here for a state so limited in natural beauty and outdoor recreational opportunities. Why should we willingly give up the public’s access to so large an area of river surface — and in a spot that, until now, has remained relatively unspoiled — for so little obvious benefit?

The view from Rick Sims’ dock of the site of a proposed barge terminal just across the Illinois River near Seneca.
The view from Rick Sims’ dock of the site of a proposed barge terminal just across the Illinois River near Seneca.
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

The decision lies with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Department of Natural Resources. Both agencies say they are in the process of reviewing the barge terminal application.

The Army Corps has the broader mandate. It’s supposed to analyze all of the potential impacts of such a project on the public’s interests, including “conservation, economics, aesthetics, general environmental concerns, historic values, fish and wildlife values, flood damage prevention, land use, navigation, recreation, water supply and water quality, energy needs, safety, food production and the needs and welfare of the people.”

But Sims worries that the Corps’ main interest in this case is to clear the way for the project as quickly as possible.

That concern was heightened Wednesday when Corps officials rejected a request for a public hearing that objectors had sought to more fully air their concerns — chief among them a belief that the terminal project does not make economic sense unless the barge company has undisclosed plans for “loading and unloading product for some future unspecified industrial processing.”

Derek Egan, chief operating officer of Illinois and Michigan Oil, scoffed at the notion there is some hidden agenda and expressed disappointment that Sims and his neighbors have refused his efforts to meet to explain his plans.

“We just want some places to tie up,” Egan says, tired of the “what if” speculation.

The proposed location — 10 miles north of the lock at Marseilles — would provide a valuable staging area for boats that need a place to moor when they can’t pass through the lock because of flooding, according to Egan. He says boats could change crews there and take on groceries, employing just three to five people at first.

“There’s not going to be 106” barges, according to Egan, who says he applied for more capacity than he expects to need.

A Joliet barge operator is seeking authority to moor as many as 106 barges at a time on this 1.5-mile stretch of the Illinois River. That’s made for some unhappy nearby homeowners.
A Joliet barge operator is seeking authority to moor as many as 106 barges at a time on this 1.5-mile stretch of the Illinois River. That’s made for some unhappy nearby homeowners.
Brian Rich/ Sun-Times

John “Jack” Foley, Sims’ Chicago lawyer, finds the explanation preposterous.

“They’re not being truthful about what their intentions are,” insists Foley, who suspects that the Corps’ refusal to hold a public hearing increases the chances the matter eventually will be brought before a federal judge.

“We’ve followed every rule, every procedure,” counters Egan, whose family has been towing barges on the Illinois River for three generations.

As is customary in his family, one of its tugs is named after him — the Derek E.

Though oil and chemicals are among the products the company hauls, Egan says the “Oil” in the company name is misleading — dating to when his father started the business as an oil-trading concern.

Egan touts the company’s plans to preserve 500 wooded acres of its 640-acre site through the state’s forestry management program. The resulting private forest preserve would entitle the owners to a property tax break.

Though not visible from the river, the property is the site of a former DuPont chemical plant where military explosives were once manufactured and transported by rail, he says.

To further dispute claims of a “pristine” environment, Egan notes that there’s a liquid anhydrous ammonia tank on an adjacent piece of land.

None of that immediately was evident as Sims and neighbor Doug Gladden took me for a pontoon boat ride for a closer inspection.

Doug Gladden consults a navigational chart to point out the location of a proposed barge terminal near his home on the Illinois River.
Doug Gladden consults a navigational chart to point out the location of a proposed barge terminal near his home on the Illinois River.
Brian Rich / Sun-Times

One of the first things we saw was an eagle perched in a treetop. Minutes later, another eagle, on the hunt, circled high above.

The river was quiet on this gray morning. There has been no barge traffic this summer, as the Army Corps repairs the locks. But Sims showed me a photo with perhaps 50 pleasure boats tied up along the bank for Labor Day.

The riverbank quickly becomes cluttered and industrialized as we traveled downriver from Sims’ home and got closer to Seneca.

Gladden thinks that area would have been a better site for a barge terminal.

“To take a green area and commercialize it doesn’t make a lot of sense,” he says.

It doesn’t make sense to me, either.

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