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Editorial: Stop this proposed tower of toxic waste on Chicago’s Lake Michigan shoreline

Chicago Tribune - 5/21/2024

In 1982, the Illinois General Assembly passed legislation allowing for the conveyance of property along Lake Michigan on Chicago’s Southeast Side to the Chicago Park District in partnership with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The purpose of the transaction was to construct and operate a repository on 45 acres to hold contaminated sediment dredged from the Calumet River and other nearby waterways.

Under the law, the land remains with the Chicago Park District. But it’s been used for the past four decades for a 45-acre facility lodged under the water surface to hold riverbed material contaminated with various toxics tied to an area long characterized by heavy industrial use.

And now the facility is full.

A key part of the deal struck back when President Ronald Reagan was in his first term and Jim Thompson was just beginning his second as Illinois governor was that the site would be converted to parkland after the dump had exhausted its useful life.

But when that time came a few years ago, the corps opted instead to double down on the site. The federal agency, which is responsible for, among other things, maintaining navigable waters like the Calumet, proposed to construct another dump there and do so on top of the existing one. The facility would rise 25 feet above ground and allow for 20 additional years or more of dredging and disposing contaminated material on the shore of Lake Michigan near the mouth of the Calumet River.

A coalition of environmental groups sued in federal court to stop the project, and that lawsuit is pending. Oral arguments are scheduled for this summer.

Other than the court action, what’s keeping the dump expansion from happening for the time being is the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency, which has refused thus far to issue water-quality permits necessary for the corps to begin even preparatory work, like constructing an access road. The arguments in federal court get into public-use doctrine, whether the corps has adequately followed federal procurement rules, and environmental justice law, among other things. Both sides make arguments that sound reasonable; it’s fair to say the eventual outcome before U.S. District Judge Thomas Durkin is difficult to handicap, let alone predict.

What’s clear from our standpoint is this: A deal should be a deal. No one on either side of the issue is arguing that the Chicago Park District and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers didn’t agree to restore the property for recreational purposes once the dump was full. The corps now is arguing in its legal briefs that it’s not actually reneging. The park still will come; it just will happen decades from now rather than at this moment. The law as originally envisioned isn’t being violated, the agency says.

We disagree. What’s to stop the corps decades from now from moving to build yet another dump and making exactly the same arguments?

Views on how the lakefront should be used have evolved quite a bit since 1982, even on the Southeast Side, long host to industries that other parts of the city wanted as far away as possible. Ald. Peter Chico, who represents the 10th Ward, wrote in August to Mayor Brandon Johnson urging him to stop the corps from moving forward. “My community is already suffering the burdens of excessive pollution and dump sites,” he wrote.

He was right. An above-ground toxic waste dump on the shores of a massive lake whose waters are rising and is prone in this era of climate change to more intense storms is wrongheaded — and unfair to the community.

The Army Corps says in its briefs that it’s considered dozens of alternatives to this project, including other sites inside and outside of the 10th Ward, and that none are feasible. It dismisses suggestions that it truck the sediments to private waste facilities already permitted to accept such materials, arguing that would be too expensive and questioning whether there’s adequate capacity.

The corps warns that its current inability to dredge in the area will impede barge traffic between the lake and the Mississippi River and negatively affect commerce in the region. That’s an important concern, of course. These waterways are an underappreciated part of Chicago’s enviable and crucial status as a commercial transportation hub.

But that doesn’t mean we should take the corps at its word that there are no practicable alternatives to a 25-foot-high toxic waste repository on the lakeshore. In deciding on this option, the corps appeared to view the Southeast Side as a region already home to numerous polluting industries.  So what’s one more?

For now, Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s IEPA is standing in the way.

But, as we’ve seen with other issues (migrant shelters, poorly thought-out stadium projects), the governor is having to step in when Chicago’s mayor ought to be the one taking charge of this matter. It’s the Chicago Park District that’s the land owner after all. That’s the entity allowing the corps to pursue this project. The mayor controls the Park District by appointing its commissioners, who are then subject to City Council approval.

Johnson has been petitioned to end this deal with the corps, not just by Ald. Chico but also by 23 community and environmental groups, including the Environmental Law & Policy Center, Alliance of the Southeast and Friends of the Parks. Those three are plaintiffs in the federal lawsuit as well.

As far as we know, Johnson has said and done nothing to inform his commissioners of any mayoral disquiet with this massive toxic dump, let alone demand its rejection. This from a mayor who has made environmental justice a cornerstone of his administration’s principles. Indeed, less than two weeks ago, on May 10, Johnson issued a press release titled, “Environmental Justice Takes Major Strides in Mayor Johnson’s First Year,” which lauded his reestablishment of the city Department of Environment and his commitment to tackle the issue of pollutants causing asthma and cancer in “Black and Brown neighborhoods.”

Guess what also is a “Black and Brown” neighborhood, in the mayor’s parlance? The Southeast Side. About 50% of the 10th Ward’s residents are Hispanic and 38% are Black, according to the city.

Here’s a golden opportunity for a talky mayor to actually walk the walk on environmental justice. He ought to have done so before now. Better late than never.

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