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Is the Grand Calumet River Worth Saving?

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The Grand Calumet river meanders for 13 miles—most of it through Northwest Indiana. It winds from a lagoon in Gary to Hegewisch on Chicago’s South Side, and eventually dumps into Lake Michigan. What it dumps has been a big concern for decades: tons of sludge contaminated with mercury, PCBs and cyanide. There have been efforts to clean up the river. But in spite of those efforts, the Grand Cal remains one of the biggest threats to the health and vitality of Lake Michigan. As part of Chicago Matters: Growing Forward, Chicago Public Radio’s Michael Puente has this report.

Potawatomi and Miami Indians once used this winding river to fish, and as a trail guide. Early maps gave it names like Kokomink, Callimink and Konomick. By the late 1800s, it was being called the Grand Calumet. But whatever led folks to call the river grand began to wash away a century ago when cities like Gary, Hammond and East Chicago began using the river to dispose of millions of gallons of raw municipal wastewater. Heavy industry, meanwhile, used it to dump water used by factories in the production or cooling of equipment that contained hazardous chemicals. Simply put, a hundred years ago the river was seen as a pathway to riches. The environmental impact wasn’t a worry.

These days, even song lyrics warn about touching the river, one of the most polluted waterways in America.

Song: Don’t drink the water, don’t eat the fish. Looks like water but don’t even touch it. Heavy industry and Chicago’s garbage built along the shores of the Calumet Rivers.

Taking a canoe on the Grand Cal may be okay in certain areas, but eating fish caught there isn’t a good idea, and swimming, even worse. The state of the Grand Cal is not only important to Northwest Indiana, but to Illinois and beyond because its contaminated waters and sludge end up in Lake Michigan.

Decades ago, that link sparked interest in cleaning the river.

CAREY: The reason the Grand Calumet River got the attention that it did is because it’s a tributary to Lake Michigan that needed to be cleaned up in order for Lake Michigan to be safe.

That’s Dorreen Carey, environmental enforcement chief for the city of Gary. Years ago Carey and a not-for-profit group called the Grand Calumet Task Force started calling for clean up of the river. The task force disbanded a few years ago, and though the river’s been improved in some areas, there’s a long way to go.

DORWORTH: This is an important river.

That’s Leslie Dorworth is a water ecology specialist at Purdue University Calumet in Hammond.

DORWORTH: In terms of the overall health of the Great Lakes, it can have an impact on what’s going on because the water circulates around the lake itself and eventually could end up going through the Straits of Mackinaw.

The Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal in East Chicago was built in the late 1800s to give the Grand Calumet a direct link to Lake Michigan. Decades of discharges from steel, oil and chemical companies have left the Grand Calumet extremely polluted with contaminated sediment, which is basically bits of rock or earth that collect at the bottom of waterways like rivers, lakes and lagoons.

(ambi sound of the river… including kids fishing)

Lagoons like the Marquette Park Lagoons in Gary, the headwaters for the Grand Calumet, haven’t suffered as much from pollution as other areas of the river, although eating the fish caught here isn’t a wise move.

In this picturesque area, children and adults fish and boat and can spend a nice time in the summer. The lagoons’ beauty isn’t lost on Tom Anderson, director of the Save the Dunes Council, based in nearby Michigan City, Indiana.

ANDERSON: It’s a wonderful, tranquil scene. A little big further west you have the beginning of the Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore. So, this is an interface of an urban park, residential community, Lake Michigan, but it is also the best reservoir of what we have in many regards the memory of the Grand Calumet River in the small creatures, in the plant life and in the biodiversity here of the lagoons.

But the tranquility belies the contaminated state of most of the river. The contaminated sediment at the bottom of the Grand Cal and the ship canal includes 100,000 pounds of lead, 67,000 pounds of chromium, and 420 pounds of PCBs—which are chlorine and benzene chemicals extremely toxic to wildlife and humans.

ANDERSON: They are not from a pipe; they are not from a factory. They are legacy issues because of the contaminated sediments.

A few years ago, the first move to clean up the Grand Calumet started. That’s when U.S. Steel poured millions into dredging a five-mile stretch of the river near its plant in Gary. Nearly a million pounds of contaminated sediment was removed. The cleanup didn’t restore the river, but it’s seen as a positive step. There are also plans to dredge the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal in East Chicago, which the Grand Cal flows into.

But residents there have worries about where the sediment will go. That’s slowing things down. As are conflicts among federal, state and local officials about who’s to pay. Environmentalists like Tom Anderson say Indiana officials aren’t doing enough to clean the Grand Calumet, nor is it being done fast enough. Officials, however, say the river won’t be restored overnight.

ADMIRE: There’s about a hundred years of historical sediment contamination. So, we have to deal with that. And, hopefully, when we’re finished, we’ll have an area that’s restored.

That’s Beth Admire, an attorney with the Indiana Department of Environmental Management, or IDEM for short. IDEM is in charge of the river’s cleanup. Admire says two more dredging projects are in the works in the coming year. She predicts that in as little as 8 years, major portions of the Grand Cal could see boating or canoeing return, although she says swimming and eating the fish caught from the river could still be problematic.

But a stumbling block to that goal is if industries, like U.S. Steel in Gary, are allowed to put more toxins, cyanide for instance, into the river. Last year, U.S. Steel reportedly asked for permission to put more cyanide into the Grand Cal. Besides cyanide, the company already discharges 2,800 pounds of oil and grease into the river every day. IDEM hasn’t approved the cyanide increase request by U.S. Steel because the agency is working on new standards for water quality.

But meanwhile, environmentalists are worried. They point to a recent proposal by IDEM to remove the Grand Cal off its list of troubled waterways. Tom Anderson of Save the Dunes says that’s a sign IDEM may be trying to figure out a way for U.S. Steel to dump more cyanide into the Grand Cal.

ANDERSON: It is counter-intuitive to allow an increase in something that the river was listed for or contaminated with and we’re spending enormous amounts of money to remove it, but it looks like we’re then turning around and putting more into it.

But U.S. Steel’s spokesman John Armstrong says his company has no plans to hike pollution discharges into Lake Michigan or the Grand Cal.

Gary environmental chief Dorreen Carey hopes the company sticks by its word. That means holding down on new pollution and getting on with removing the remaining contaminated sediment from the Grand Calumet.

Tom Anderson agrees. He says a restored Grand Cal could spark an environmental and economic revival for the entire region.

ANDERSON: We think that this is a very important piece of the renaissance of Northwest Indiana, but we have to have clean water because again, no matter what the water may look like, if the water is not safe, if people cannot go and touch the water, if they can’t eat the fish that they catch, they won’t want to be near the resource.

And then, if the river is cleaned up, folks might be singing a different tune.

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