Grand Calumet River delivers toxic load to Lake Michigan

January 26, 2013

Kari Lydersen | Great Lakes Echo

The Grand Calumet River system winds for 13 miles through a Northwest Indiana industrial landscape that could almost be described as post-apocalyptic.

Alongside the several branches of the slow-moving waterway, a steel mill, gypsum plant and other heavy industry spew plumes of steam into the air while vines and shrubs grow inside vacant crumbling brick buildings.  A fragment of the partially demolished Cline Avenue bridge still stands, twisted rebar and chunks of concrete hanging from each end. A rusty abandoned motorboat bobs half-sunken next to a soiled brown floating absorbent boom.

The Grand Calumet has long been known as one of the nation’s most polluted rivers. It is one of 43 federal Areas of Concern targeted for remediation in the Great Lakes region. For many decades before the 1972 Clean Water Act, countless industries dumped contaminated waste into the river with abandon.  Gary, East Chicago and Hammond discharge untreated sewage and storm water into it.

The Grand Calumet consists of two forks that join and empty into Lake Michigan via the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal and Indiana Harbor, in East Chicago. Though the land right around the river mouth is not open to the public, local residents fish, swim, boat and wade at nearby beaches, harbors and weedy access points.

The Grand Calumet’s impact on this near shore area is hard to quantify given the way contaminants disperse quickly in Lake Michigan. But experts with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management say the river surely harms near shore lake water quality and habitat as it empties one billion gallons of water into Lake Michigan each day.

That flow includes material from overflowing sewers during heavy rains, contaminated sediment pulled from the river bottom, industrial run-off and contaminated groundwater.

Daunting as this toxic brew may sound, the Grand Calumet is getting cleaned up. Hence the near shore area of Lake Michigan should reap significant environmental and ecological benefits as well.

State and federal environmental officials are about halfway through a massive project to remove contaminated sediment and restore wetlands. And the state environmental agency is working with municipalities to reduce sewage overflow during rains.

A legacy of contamination

The Grand Calumet was “originally mostly a slowly meandering wetland complex,” said Jim Smith, an Indiana state natural resource damage coordinator. But with widespread dredging, channelizing, damming and the building of the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal which makes up the final stretch into the lake, “the flow regime of the river has changed.”

Today, in fact, municipal and industrial effluent makes up 90 percent of the river’s flow.

“There were industries from meatpacking to lumber to brickmaking and metal shops on the west branch to the big steel mills and the petroleum industry,” Smith noted. “Pipelines and everything came through this area. Also the municipalities developed their sewers going directly into the river. There was domestic contamination from human origin to organic stuff from the petroleum industry and steelmaking.

“The river was the disposal point for years.”

The river’s sediment contains harmful metals and carcinogenic compounds including polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and heavy metals like mercury, cadmium, chromium and lead from the decades of industrial dumping. A  2000 study prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found serious concerns and impacts from contaminated sediment in the Grand Calumet.

The river is also contaminated by leaching and run-off from nearby waste disposal sites and contaminated groundwater, according to the Areas of Concern website.  It is even harmed by atmospheric deposition of contaminants from fossil fuel burning and waste incineration.

There are more than 460 underground storage tanks containing chemical and petroleum waste products in the area, the website says, and at least 150 leaking tank reports have been filed with the county.

“The contaminants we’re talking about affect organisms and can directly or indirectly affect the food chain,” said Scott Ireland, U.S. EPA special assistant for the senior adviser to the administrator on the Great Lakes. “They could wipe out the benthic community, so fish are not able to eat, or fish eat (benthic organisms) and are contaminated; then the contamination will enter the food chain. If humans eat the fish, they are taking up those contaminants as well.”

Great Lakes Echo is a project of the Knight Center for Environmental Journalism at Michigan State University.