Regional Rats: The Grand Calumet River
Why would any community agree to such extreme negative costs to its land, water, air and residents?
Is there any doubt that East Chicago should be the epicenter for the dialogue on environmental justice and stewardship?
- If we solve the environmental problems for fence-line industrial communities like East Chicago we solve the problem for middle-class America and the causes of global warming.
- When negative costs outweigh positive benefits is there justification to revoke the responsible party’s “Land Use” privileges?
- Does the Law of the Commons apply?
via [ Post-Trib ] Region’s sewer: Grand Cal faces long recuperation
By Gitte Laasby
|State and Federal “14 Beneficial Use” Criteria.
|GARY — The Grand Calumet River has the most problems of any river in the United States, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.Cleanup has progressed slowly since the river was designated as one of the nation’s worst in 1987. Locals say it could take several decades before the river is restored to its pre-industrial state and can be a source of recreation for region residents, but several proposals are in the works
Municipalities in the region used the river as a sewer for their waste. For about a century, steel mills and treatment plants have spewed untold amounts of heavy metals, pesticides, bacteria and pollutants that can cause cancer in humans into the river.
Today, elevated levels of mercury, lead, cadmium and polychlorinated biphenyls lie buried in the Grand Cal to a depth of up to 11.5 feet below ground surface, according to the EPA. The river also has problems with oil and grease and too little oxygen. EPA estimates that the Grand Calumet River and Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal contain 5 million to 10 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment up to 20 feet deep.
What else contributes to the ailments of the Grand Cal?
Fifteen combined sewer overflows discharge an estimated 11 billion gallons of raw wastewater into the harbor and river, according to the EPA. About 57 percent of that is discharged within eight miles of Lake Michigan, which contributes to E. coli contamination nearby, EPA says. Bacteria are the main reason for beach closings.
Stormwater runoff and water leached out from 11 waste disposal and storage sites located within 0.2 miles of the river continue to degrade water quality.
Five Superfund sites, the most contaminated places in the nation, are located in the area. So are 423 hazardous waste sites. And more than 150 leaking underground storage petroleum tanks. Air pollution and contaminated groundwater also affect the river, EPA says.
Today, about 90 percent of the river consists of wastewater from industry and sewage from municipal treatment plants, EPA says.
When officials assess the health of a river, they judge it based on 14 possible “beneficial uses,” such as whether people can swim in the river or eat fish from it and whether the river has the variety of bugs that would be expected in similar places.
The Grand Calumet is the only river in the United States that’s impaired in all 14 possible ways, said Gary Gulezian, director of EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office.
The Grand Calumet River and the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal were identified in 1987 as an “area of concern.”
Dredging is the remedy
Water quality has slowly improved in the river since the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 restricted the amount of water pollution that facilities could discharge, but pollution has taken its toll on the ecosystem.
Locals agree that dredging the river to clean up the toxic sediment is key to restoring the health of the river.
“If you don’t address that, it takes a whack at it, but it doesn’t address the problem,” said Mark Reshkin, professor emeritus of geology and public and environmental affairs at Indiana University Northwest. “You want to restore the environment to what we consider natural. That might take 30 or 40 years because nature doesn’t restore that quickly.”
Among the companies that polluted the river were Atlantic Richfield Co., BP, E.I. Du Pont De Nemours and Co., Exxon Mobil, GATX, Georgia Pacific, Ispat-Inland and U. S. Steel, which paid a combined $56 million in damages.
As part of a legal agreement with the EPA, U.S. Steel dredged 786,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from a 5-mile stretch of the river — a $57 million project completed in 2008.
The EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management are undertaking another dredging project that will address another 2.4 miles of the 13-mile river.
“Until we address the legacy sediment, we won’t have a river that can restore itself and is safe for all, for the ecosystem and for human health,” said Dorreen Carey, director of the department of environment with the city of Gary. “But in the meantime, it’s always been my position there’s lots of things we can do to contribute to cleaning up the river.”
Stormwater runoff and combined sewer overflows to the river need to be reduced, she said.
More projects proposed
Several Northwest Indiana entities have submitted grant proposals to EPA that would help the Grand Cal although they don’t involve dredging.
Joe Exl, coastal non-point coordinator with the Indiana Department of Natural Resources’ Lake Michigan Coastal Program, said the city of Gary has submitted a grant proposal that involves using plants to reduce runoff from the city’s paved areas to the Grand Cal by about 4.5 million gallons per year.
IDEM also submitted grant proposals. The agency is in charge of preparing a plan to clean up the river. IDEM has worked on the plan since 2001, but did not provide information on the plan despite several requests from the Post-Tribune.
The impairments of the river were established years ago, before many of the improvements in recent years. The Post-Tribune asked IDEM when the Grand Calumet was last sampled and how many of the impairments are still current. IDEM did not answer the questions by deadline.
But Reshkin knows one thing.
“The Grand Calumet is better than it was. The water quality is better,” he said. “Can you re-establish species that existed before the industry? I know that you can.”