A few miles southeast of Chicago, in the shadow of an elevated toll road that links the Windy City to Indiana, crews are transforming one of America’s most polluted rivers into an oasis for wildlife.
The Grand Calumet River was abused for more than a century by cities and industries that used it as a sewer. Decades of toxic discharges blanketed the river bottom with a thick layer of poisonous mud that fouled the water, drove away every species of fish except carp and goldfish, and coated birds in oil.
A $50 million cleanup of the Grand Calumet’s west branch project aims to reverse the damage and restore life to a river and associated wetlands that once attracted scores of migratory birds.
“We’re returning this to a real river,” said Scott Ireland, a scientist with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “We’re already seeing some bird species returning.”
Daniel Sparks, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist who has worked on the Grand Calumet River project since 1989, said aquatic life could return to the river’s west branch soon after the cleanup is finished.
“We’re making real progress; I’m excited,” Sparks said. “Fish could spawn again in this river someday.”
River is one of many Great Lakes toxic hotspots
The Grand Calumet River is one of 42 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. The river flows 13 miles through the heavily industrialized cities of Gary, East Chicago and Hammond, Ind., before flowing into Lake Michigan via the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal.
The river and harbor — which drain an area that is home to 57 severe pollution sites and wastewater treatment plants that still discharge untreated sewage into the river — contain between 5 million and 10 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment. About 150,000 cubic yards of that polluted sediment washes out of the river and into Lake Michigan annually, according to government studies.
The river’s toxic underbelly was fouled by a witch’s brew of toxic wastes, including oil and grease, heavy metals, PCBs, according to government records.
Cleaning up all of the Grand Calumet River and the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal will cost more than $100 million, according to federal officials.
Since last year, crews working for the U.S. EPA and Indiana’s Department of Environmental Management and Department of Natural Resources have dredged 232,000 cubic yards of toxic sediment from the west branch of the Grand Calumet and one of its largest wetlands, the 19-acre Roxana Marsh. Workers also removed several acres of invasive Phragmites and, in February, will begin depositing a layer of clean sand, clay and rugged fabric on the river bottom that will serve as a cap atop 345,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments that will be left behind.
Ireland said the sand and clay cap would isolate the remaining pollutants from the river and allow the waterway to heal. He said there wasn’t enough money to remove all of the toxic mud.
“In some areas toxins are found 15 feet below the bottom of the river,” Ireland said.
Federal program is cleansing the lakes
Funding for the cleanup came from the EPA’s Great Lakes Legacy Act program and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management. State and federal agencies collected $72 million from companies that polluted the river, Ireland said.
The Great Lakes Legacy Act, which is now implemented through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, has proven to be one of the region’s most effective cleanup programs since it was established in 2002. Money from the program has cleaned up 1.5 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment at sites in Indiana, Michigan, New York, Ohio and Wisconsin. Go here to learn more about the program.
U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, a Democrat who represents northern Indiana, championed the Great Lakes Legacy Act in Congress and helped secure funding to clean up the Grand Calumet River.
Visclosky in 2008 told the Post Tribune of Gary, Ind., that the benefits of cleaning up the Grand Calumet extend far beyond the boundaries of the river’s basin.
“It will help improve water quality in all areas downstream, including the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal and Lake Michigan,” Visclosky said. “It is one in a series of historic efforts to clean up over a century of contamination in those waters and return them to their natural purity.”
Ireland, who has worked on the Grand Calumet project for 20 years, said he wasn’t sure the cleanup would ever get off the ground.
“If you had asked me 15 years ago if I thought this river would ever be cleaned up, I would have been hard pressed to say yes,” Ireland said recently. “People thought this river would be polluted forever.”
Cornell Davidson, a lifelong resident of East Chicago, Ind., called the Grand Calumet River cleanup “a very good thing.”
“I’m hoping they can get rid of all of the pollution,” Davidson said. “Maybe it will improve our quality of life and we can live longer.”