November 18, 2021
Chicago’s EJ Communities Need Parks Not Pollution
As if they don’t have enough polluters on all sides, Southeast Side residents face plans for an expanded waste dump on the lakeshore, where they were supposed to get a park.
Chicago is famous for its shoreline: a vast expanse of parks, beaches, and soaring architecture that captivates visitors and residents alike. But that is not the view for everyone. On the Southeast Side, industrial facilities have surrounded residents for generations, spewing toxins into the air and water, leading to higher rates of asthma, flooding, and other woes. Today, residents are fighting back against being treated like the city’s dumping ground, as we’ve seen in the fights against Petcoke and scrap metal polluter General Iron.
The fight has also come to the shoreline, where residents were promised a park to replace the long-time dredge dump known as the Confined Disposal Facility (CDF). Now the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is looking to extend the permit for the CDF, with plans to expand the facility in the lake by building a new facility above the existing CDF. Local residents and groups gathered digitally in October to ask questions and hear more from the Illinois EPA. ELPC attorneys (representing the Alliance of the Southeast and Friends of the Parks) with Openlands filed detailed to the Illinois EPA—along with 140 individuals who submitted comments in this fight for clean water. With the existing CDF, there are risks to the future of the shoreline, the water, and the community.
CDF has a murky past
The CDF is a dump site used by the U.S. Army Corps for sediment dredged from the Calumet River and Harbor—both of which are historic hubs of industrial pollution. The facility is located on 45 acres, at the mouth of the Calumet River in Chicago’s East Side in the 10th Ward, just north of a public park and beach. The CDF is also neighbor to the South Chicago neighborhood. According to EPA’s EJSCREEN mapping tool, there are 3,536 people who live within a one-mile radius of the facility—69% of the population live below the poverty level, and 94% of the population are racially and ethnically marginalized.
Originally constructed as an in-lake facility by 1984, the facility has largely been filled with likely contaminated dredged material. It was expected to reach its capacity in 2022, then be topped off and turned into a park, but the proposed permit extension and later expansion could mean years of additional concerns instead. The change in plans is frustrating for many in the local community and advocate groups. of the Parks’ Juanita Irizzary notes that keeping this facility open could mean pollution in the water supply, “their own documents, which we forced them to make public, show that the CDF is leaching PCBs, arsenic, mercury, and other toxins back into the water supply.”
Questions remain unanswered
- Could hazardous pollutants be leaching into the lake? Despite its proximity to Lake Michigan and the fact that the facility was built in the Lake, the CDF has historically not been subject to the rigorous water quality standards of the Great Lakes because its outfall discharges into the Calumet River. The current permit application would not require the appropriate water quality standards and testing for things like PCBs, mercury, and lead in Lake Michigan. These contaminants, among others, were once measured weekly and quarterly, but have not been since 1997. While there has been water quality monitoring at the nearby dike and the Corps will test the sediment before dumping, monitoring has not been frequent enough to understand whether or not the CDF is leaching into the Lake. What are people being exposed to as this dredge material is being concentrated in the CDF, whose waters rise and fall just at the waters of Lake Michigan? How much longer are we going to put the lake, Southeast Side, and South Chicago at risk?
- Is this facility strong enough to withstand stronger storms and higher lake levels due to climate change? In the past few years, record water levels have created more turbulent conditions along Lake Michigan, eroding breakwalls, drowning beaches, flowing into lakefront communities, and exacerbating pollution concerns throughout the area. The CDF’s exposed position on the lakefront means it may be more vulnerable to damage. If the barriers surrounding the CDF’s contents were to erode or breach, pollutants could get into the lake where people swim. When asked whether the facility was structurally sound, given these changing conditions, IEPA said they were not aware of the status of the breakwater or the seawall.
- Is adding to this dump necessary? The current permit application is just for a one-year renewal, but the Army Corps plans to add a Dredged Material Disposal Facility (DMDF) on top of the CDF, which has not been authorized by the legislature and would extend this threat for several years to come. The Army Corps should be looking to other alternatives to manage the dredge material instead of building a DMDF, adding to the existing CDF, building a new CDF in the 10th Ward, or dumping this material into any other communities—especially environmental justice communities like the Southeast Side. The Corps should also seriously reconsider the placement of this CDF. Even if the breakwalls are safe now, neighbors are right to be concerned about the threat down the line. Will this community have to wait decades longer before getting clean water to drink and recreate in, as well as the park they were promised?
What’s Next for the CDF?
ELPC has joined with a coalition urging Illinois EPA to take a closer look before approving the permit renewal for this facility. Especially given the historic lack of testing and the changing conditions along the lakefront, the public deserves to know whether this facility is strong enough to protect Lake Michigan water from contamination, even in the short term.
If we cannot trust that the facility is safe, then the CDF should close, and not be relocated anywhere in the community. As Amalia NietoGomez from the Alliance of the Southeast said, “we have enough toxic developments on the Southeast Side.” They don’t need any more.