Man-made and nearly 100 years old. the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal meets Lake Michigan between Ispat and LTV Steel Companies in East Chicago, and is a major shipping terminus for Great Lakes Transportation.
After a century of use as a dump by area steel mills, oil refineries and sewage plants, the waterway is considered unfit for fishing and swimming, with an estimated 90 percent of its flow consisting of industrial and municipal waste matter. Government studies in 1990 found a 100 percent mortality rate for test animals exposed to mud from the harbor.
The Army Corps of Engineers, fulfilling its function of maintaining inland navigability, dredged the harbor annually until 1972, collecting the toxic sediments and releasing them out into deeper Lake Michigan waters. The Clean Water Act of 1972 prohibited such dumping.
Without this regular removal, the harbor and canal began to fill in with accumulating toxic mud while governments and corporations sought to find common ground for an economically feasible and environmentally acceptable solution to the problem of just what to do with poisoned sediments. The once 35-feet deep canal is only eight feet in some areas.
Since 1972, various proposals for dredging and disposal have been considered and rejected. Treatments of such toxic materials was considered too expensive, so the Army Corps planned to permanently store the toxic sediments in a confined disposal facility, CDF.
As time passed, the magnitude and cost of the dredging and disposal plan grew. With the Army Corps' 1994 selection of the former Energy Cooperative, Inc. refinery for placement of the CDF, the project was estimated to require 33 years for completion at a cost of $127 million.
The 275-acre ECI site is framed by the ship canal and Indianapolis Boulevard in East Chicago. As a result of bankruptcy, Lake County became owner of the heavily-polluted property in 1989 as payment for back taxes owed, along with an estimated $37 million liability for an as-yet unperformed cleanup required for the site under the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act.
A reality firm, known as the Prime Group, purchased the property for $1.00 from Lake County, in hopes to construct a major golf course. There investment turned out to be a real disappointment when they discovered that it would cost 3 times more to clean the property than to construct the golf course.
Faced with this dilemma, Prime Group eagerly turned the property over to the City of East Chicago. As a result, the city created the Waterway Management Board to deal with problem of the contaminated Canal. By killing two birds with one stone, the City of East Chicago helped a foe and obtained a location for the problematic toxic dredge.
Consequently, the Waterway Management Board became trustee of a $14.5 million trust fund left to IDEM by the refinery's operators for the mandated cleanup.
The latest Army Corps plan calls for the containment of 4.7 million cubic yards of dredged sediment in a series of 35-feet high structures covering over 200 acres from the ship canal north to Cline Avenue. The property is adjacent to East Chicago's 1st District neighborhood, Central High School, and West Side Junior High.
Working two or possibly three shifts, dredging will continue for 30 years through spring, summer, and fall seasons. The project's timetable calls for the CDF to be sealed with a cap of clay, sand, and topsoil in the year 2031, with another 30 years of monitoring scheduled to watch for potential leaks.
Funding for the project remains on a year-to-year basis; the Army Corps plan states that dredging of the harbor and canal, and establishment of the CDF, is "primarily" a local expense. In addition to federal tax dollars and Waterway Management District Funds, a 1993 consent decree signed by Inland Steel and the EPA earmarked $19 million for harbor dredging along its property. LTV Steel, Atlantic-Richfield - long-time former owner of the ECI site - and British Petroleum have also been asked to contribute some money for the project.
Presently, no permits have yet been issued for any phase of the dredging and disposal plan. Citizen attention can guarantee that the job is finally done safely.