Dealing with Dredging Dilemma

Dealing with Dredging Dilemma

Dealing with Dredging Dilemma

By Bowden Quinn and Jennifer Gadzala, Grand Cal Task Force

Indiana harbor lies at the southern end of Lake Michigan, about 12 miles southeast of downtown Chicago in Lake County, Indiana. The Indiana Harbor Ship Canal is a federal navigation channel connecting the harbor to the Grand Calumet River. The harbor, canal, and river sit in the center of one of the world’s largest concentrations of industry. Ninety percent of the river flow consists of industrial and municipal effluent, including storm water and combined sewer overflows, which have led to severe contamination of sediments in all three waterways. In 1987, the International Joint Commission identified the waterways as one of 42 Areas of Concern (AOCs) around the Great Lakes.

The navigational portions of the harbor and canal have not been dredged for maintenance purposes since 1974. The navigational channel contains an estimated one million cubic yards of highly toxic sediment that limits deep-draft shipping and pollutes Lake Michigan. Ships and storms stir up sediments, resuspending and dispersing them into the lake where they are unrecoverable and potentially threaten the drinking water supply for millions of people and pose a risk to aquatic organisms and other wildlife.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the East Chicago Waterway Management District plan to use federal construction funding and cost-share money from a settlement with Energy Cooperative, Inc. to build a proposed 131-acre confined disposal facility (CDF). The CDF is designed to hold the 4.67 million cubic yards of toxic sediments the Corps says may be dredged under the plan. The problem is that the CDF would be located a half mile from a high school and residential area. The Corps’ environmental impact statement says the CDF would pose a minimal health threat to people in the school and homes, a view not shared by many local residents. While supportive of the dredging, they have opposed the CDF since it was proposed in 1995.

The Corps and the East Chicago Waterway Management District held three public meetings in February to discuss the project. The government has looked at 23 different sites as potential locations for a CDF to store sediments. If the proposed site near the high school is rejected, we will go on arguing for at least another decade before a new site is ready, while the sediments continue to poison Lake Michigan and our local environment. We need to stop arguing and start the job that was the goal of the local residents who created the Task Force 20 years ago. However, the federal government needs to do more to compensate the people of East Chicago. Failure to do so would violate the federal government’s own principles of environmental justice.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) risk analysis for potential air emissions from the proposed CDF says the facility could pose an increased lifetime cancer risk to an individual at the high school of two in a million. The analysis concludes that this additional risk is statistically irrelevant because the overall cancer risk from breathing the air in East Chicago is three in 10,000. That rationale leads to the following conclusion: The CDF could not be put in a wealthy residential community far from industry and heavy traffic because such a community would have a much lower background risk of cancer. The CDF would measurably increase the risk in that community. So the EPA is telling us the CDF would only be acceptable in a community that is already at high risk for cancer. The residents of such communities are typically lower income and often minorities, as is the case in East Chicago. Thus, the rationale behind the siting of this CDF is inherently unjust.

One official at a public meeting denied that this is an example of environmental injustice because the contaminated materials are in the community already, so it is not being dumped on with wastes from another area. But there are injustices of time as well as geography. The contaminants that lie at the bottom of the canal go back many years. This community is being asked to accept the wastes of generations that came before, generations that earned good money and moved away. So this is a case of a community being dumped on by another wealthier community. It’s just taken decades for it to happen.

We have also been told that the community should not spend its time opposing the siting of the CDF when there are so many other, more hazardous sources of air pollution already here. But who is responsible for those sources? There are few communities in the country that have been as active in opposing dangerous air pollution sources as Northwest Indiana. For almost 20 years, the community opposed burning hazardous waste in the sulfuric acid recycling facility now called Rhodia. The EPA permitted the burning. The community fought against Pollution Control Industries. EPA and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) have permitted that hazardous waste blender. The community fought for years against Keil Chemical, and finally got the company to say it will remove the dangerous Pyro- Check process, which EPA and IDEM failed to shut down despite the company’s numerous violations of environmental regulations. The government should not be telling the people of Northwest Indiana that they have more serious problems to worry about.

We don’t blame the Army Corps of Engineers for this proposal. It has been given the job of dredging the harbor and canal and has proposed to do it in what it views as the most cost-effective manner. But we think it is wrong of the EPA, which is supposed to protect people against environmental risks, to tell this community that it should not be concerned about a 2 in a million additional risk of cancer. We think it is wrong of IDEM and the City of East Chicago not to require EPA to do more to protect this community. EPA and IDEM permit the sources of pollution that make this community such an unhealthy place to live. They have the power to reduce those risks.

Government should have a policy of net risk reduction for any hazardous waste site it proposes to put in an at-risk community like East Chicago. Rather than tell the community the additional risk is negligible, it should prove to the community that it has reduced its overall risk through other actions to limit pollution. These actions could be voluntary on the part of industry. I am sure that there are things that the nearby BP Amoco refinery could do that would significantly lower the community’s risk. It seems to me only fair that the companies that are the main beneficiaries of the dredging should compensate for the additional risks of the CDF. But whether through voluntary measures or tougher enforcement, the EPA can and should see to it that the overall risk of getting cancer from breathing the air in East Chicago is reduced, before the CDF gets started.

We also believe that it is wrong of the federal government to jeopardize the financial well-being of this community through a possible decrease in property values. The Corps admits that those values may decrease, although it claims such a drop would be only temporary, until people get used to the presence of the CDF. People’s homes are their primary investment. The government should not put that investment at risk, even for a short time. Since the government says the property values will not stay depressed, it should put its money where its mouth is by setting up a fund that would compensate property owners for decreases in the value of their property if owners suffer significant losses as a result. If the government’s calculations are correct, the cost of such a plan would be small. These people do not want to sell their homes and move away. They are fighting this CDF because they want to stay in East Chicago and raise their families. The least the government should do is ease their fears of damage to their finances as well as to their health.

These are two steps the federal government could take, at no great expense, to live up to its professed belief in environmental justice. The principle of environmental justice is that no community should have to accept an unfair burden of pollution. Yet that is exactly what is being asked of this community. The government wants the people who live around the proposed site or who go to school at East Chicago Central High School to accept a CDF that poses a small but perceptible increased risk of cancer and a potential threat to the value of their homes. All of us will be able to enjoy a cleaner Lake Michigan as a result. We believe the people who are being asked to accept the sediments deserve more in return for that sacrifice.

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Images courtesy of Steven Huyser-Honig,
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