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STEINBERG: Port of Chicago down on its heels but still plays a role

Silos at the Port of Chicago. A critical 2008 study pointed out that the only infrastructure built there since 1981 has been a golf course.
Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed House Bill 1797 on Aug. 25. Unlike most bills the governor has been flinging away, this bill received no public notice whatsoever beyond an obligatory line on the Illinois General Assembly website.

This is because the bill involves financial relief for a place little known despite its enormous size: the Port of Chicago.

The Port of Chicago is actually two places: the Lake Calumet Terminal, a 1,600-acre shipping facility, with wharves and silos, transit sheds and warehouses. And Iroquois Landing, a 190-acre parcel at the mouth of Calumet River acquired in 1978. The Port contains the Confined Disposal Facility, a lakeside area where the Army Corps of Engineers dumped contaminated muck dredged from the bottom of rivers and, not unrelatedly, a 36-hole golf course, Harborside International, on a former waste dump.


Consumers tend to think of shipping as something done quickly. Order a flannel shirt from Land’s End and within days it arrives on your doorstep. The rare time we give shipping a thought, we are often entertaining images of drone delivery, of sushi winging its way to diners in Iceland. That’s our future.

Clayton Harris III, Rod Blagojevich’s last chief of staff, was brought on in May 2016, and hopes to revitalize the Port of Chicago. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

But our present requires much crushed gravel, steel bars and bulk sugar. Products that are never going to be delivered by drone. Those less-thought-about products are often transported on ship, a cheaper, environmentally friendly yet painfully slow mode of transportation.

“You’re not going to have anything at this port that has to be there tomorrow,” said Clayton Harris III, executive director of the Illinois International Port District, which oversees the port.

Even in the diminished sector of shipping, however, the Port of Chicago is something of a backwater and much criticized. In 2008, the Civic Federation issued a scathing report suggesting that the Port of Chicago was so busy building and running its golf course, which brings in half the port’s revenue, that it neglected promoting itself as a receiver of shipped goods.

The Port of Houston, the nation’s second busiest, back in business Friday after being closed for a week because of Hurricane Harvey, moves 232 million tons of goods a year. Chicago, the nation’s 38th busiest, offloads 15 million tons, and few of those in the semi-trailer-sized shipping containers that define most international commerce.

“About 40 years ago, this was envisioned to receive containers,” said Harris. “Chicago is the container capital of North America. The containers coming into Chicago are on truck or rail.”

The port is a “break bulk” facility — material that isn’t containerized, like stacks of Canadian lumber or silos of cement. Goods that will not melt or rot or spoil, materials that need to arrive at their destination in months instead of days.

Sometimes the owners — about 30 tenants rent space at the Port of Chicago, including Sweet Mix Co., one of the port’s most profitable tenants, a subsidiary of Tootsie Roll — don’t want the goods to go anywhere, but warehouse them, hoping for a spike in commodity prices.

If you tour the port, as I did, there is a certain woebegone, rusty, cracked, weed-choked quality to the place, despite the enthusiasm of Harris, 46, who was hired last year.

The best way to think of the Port of Chicago is as a buffet table set for a party where most of the guests never showed up, perhaps because they were never invited. It opened in 1958 to take advantage of the opening of the St. Lawrence Seaway the next year, which allowed ocean-going barges to enter the Great Lakes. But ship cargo is usually offloaded onto trucks and trains on the coasts instead of going into the Great Lakes.

Non-golfing efforts to revitalize it have fizzled. In 2013, Rahm Emanuel announced that the city would be privatizing the Port of Chicago.

“We are taking what was an underutilized, rundown port and turning it into an engine of opportunity,” Emanuel said. But the deal fell through, like House Bill 1797, which would have set compensation rates to the state and forgiven a decades-old $15 million debt that the port had never made a payment on anyway.

The morning I visited the port could not be described as a hub of activity. There were two ships and a scattering of barges.

The Federal Margaree, docked at the Port of Chicago in mid-July. It flies a flag of convenience from the Marshall Islands, allowing it to skirt more vigorous environmental and safety regulations. | Neil Steinberg/Sun-Times

One ship was the Federal Margaree, docked beside a heap of pig iron. The ship is registered out of Majuro, in the Marshall Islands, a flag of convenience that shippers use because the Marshalls aren’t sticklers for regulations.

The other was the inelegantly named C.T.C. 1, so named because it was used to store cement until 2009. Now it is moored by a silo, bringing in the port district a princely $600 a month from its owners, who find that a more convenient price to pay than the $30 million it would take to make the boat sea-worthy — it lacks an engine — or to scrap it and cope with all the asbestos within.

“I want them to move it,” said Harris. “The ownership changes hands regularly, and it’s expensive to do something with it. I told them they gotta move it, or they gotta paint it.”

Harris insists that while the Port of Chicago, like the C.T.C. 1, has seen better days, it still has an important role to play.

“When people look at it, they see a piece of junk,” said Harris. “But so many things are going on at this moment that affect the nation and international commerce.”

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