Photo Credit: E. Jason Wambsgans / Chicago Tribune


Howard A. Learner

Federal Lawsuit Filed to Stop Dredge Dump on Chicago’s Southeast Side Lakefront

Southeast side community is already overburdened with pollution, where a lakefront park was promised decades ago

The Alliance of the Southeast (ASE) and Friends of the Parks (FOTP), represented by ELPC public interest attorneys, filed a lawsuit in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois to stop the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers from building a “vertical” dredge dump site containing toxic waste materials on 45 acres of Lake Michigan shoreline. The lawsuit marks the latest salvo for ELPC working with the two non-profits to push the Army Corps to do the right thing by finding a better location for a dredge waste dumpsite away from shoreline and the Southeast Side community.

CBS 2 Chicago – March 17, 2023

That land was promised long ago to the community to become a park for nearby residents and all Chicagoans to use and enjoy. Equally important, the location for the expanded waste dump would add even more pollution to the Southeast Side neighborhood in Chicago’s Tenth Ward, which already is considered an Environmental Justice community experiencing an unfair and overburdened amount of pollution that poses health risks to people who live there.

The dumpsite as planned would be built on reclaimed land between Steelworkers Park and Calumet Park on Chicago’s southeast side, and used to dump contaminated material dredged out of the Calumet River for the next 20 years or more.

A Bit of History

The site was submerged land within Lake Michigan until 1984, after the State of Illinois passed a law to allow the Corps to build an in-water Confined Disposal Facility (CDF). The law attached a condition: after the CDF is full, the reclaimed land would be handed over to Chicago Park District to be converted into a new public park at the mouth of the Calumet River. The Corps has already delayed the creation of a new public park for over two decades. Now, the Corps is reneging on its public park commitment altogether, and is proposing to build an expanded new dredge waste dumpsite on top of the old CDF that will rise 25 feet in the air.

What the Lawsuit Alleges

The lawsuit alleges that the Corps does not have authority to build the new dumpsite, and greenlit the project without adequately considering the environmental impacts and other, less harmful alternatives, in violation of federal environmental and dredge-management laws.

Concentrated contaminated dredged material at the CDF poses major health risks to the local communities. Contaminants identified in the sediment from the dredged materials include mercury, PCBs, arsenic, barium, cadmium, manganese, chromium, copper, lead, and more. These contaminants sit right next to Calumet Park and Steelworkers Park, and are just a few hundred feet from Calumet Beach.

The lawsuit alleges that the Corps ignored residents’ concerns while choosing the CDF site for future dumping. The Corps did not consider any alternative sites outside the Tenth Ward, effectively forcing the community to choose between a menu of bad options. The Corps also failed to adequately evaluate the significant environmental risks of this vertically expanding lakeside dump. For example, the Corps did not test whether the contaminants are leaching into Lake Michigan near Calumet Beach and it has not analyzed how more dumping will affect the structural integrity of the underwater walls separating the contaminants from Lake Michigan, which is the source of much of the region’s water supply.

“We are tired of being the dumping ground for toxic materials in the city. The Army Corps only considered sites in the Tenth Ward, and we already had to fight against having a second site. Chicago’s Southeast Side is already overburdened, and we don’t need an expansion to add more toxic dredgings from the river right next to Calumet Park, where families gather, do sports, have picnics, and play in the water. We are concerned about the pollution from the Confined Disposal Facility on our health, and our drinking water.” – Amalia NietoGomez, Executive Director, Alliance of the Southeast

Media attention to this important lawsuit was swift and furious. Most major news outlets in the Chicago market reported on the complaint filed in federal court on March 13, and an editorial was published just one day later imploring the Army Corps to find an alternative site for the expanded waste dump. Other coverage can be found here and here.

Top Reasons We Are Objecting to the Vertical Waste Dump

  1. The Army Corps is continuing to breach its long-standing promise to the Southeast Side community and its commitment to the Illinois legislature that when the Confined Disposal Facility (CDF) filled up with toxic dredge wastes, the site would then be restored and converted into a public park along the lakefront by Calumet Park for the use and enjoyment of community residents and all Chicagoans.
  2. Location matters. The Southeast Side of Chicago is an environmental justice community that has been historically overburdened by pollution and toxic materials that harm public health, environmental quality, and public safety and welfare. The Army Corps plans to build a vertical expansion and use more lakebed for its Dredged Material Disposal Facility (DMDF) on top of the Confined Disposal Facility site that it’s been using since 1984.  That would add more pollution and contaminated materials for another 20 years or more in this EJ community, making a bad problem even worse.  The Army Corps’ proposal is contrary to the Biden’s administration’s EJ guidelines and goals, and contrary to the Biden’s administration’s Justice40 guidelines and goals, and contrary to sound environmental policy.
  3. Climate change is causing the overall mid- and longer-term trend of higher Lake Michigan water levels with more intense storm winds whipping up high waves that batter the Chicago shoreline. Building a vertical disposal facility on top of the CDF with toxic dredged waste materials defies common sense in light of the realities of higher Lake Michigan water levels and storm impacts. A toxic release from the proposed waste dump and existing CDF at this site spewing contaminated materials into Lake Michigan and drinking water supplies could be potentially disastrous.
  4. The Army Corps’ environmental impact statement process only looked at alternative sites in the 10thWard on the Southeast Side. Interestingly, the Corps’ cursory location review took place during the Trump administration. Put another way, the Army Corps did not “rigorously explore and objectively evaluate all reasonable alternatives” (per NEPA’s requirements) of any alternative sites outside of the EJ community in the 10th Ward on the Southeast Side. Apart from the legal violations raised in the federal court lawsuit, the Army Corps’ failure to examine non-10th Ward alternatives is unduly constrained, reflects yesterday’s thinking to today’s environmental problems, is insensitive to environmental justice values, and reflects a lack of innovation and creative problem-solving.

“Chicago’s lakefront is one of our city’s most precious gems. The CDF lingers on our lakefront as a remnant of previous eras’ zoning and environmental policies. It is a travesty to continue to designate prime lakefront park land, that is next to other parks and beaches, for a toxic dump. Now is the moment to close or move the CDF to a new location outside of the Tenth Ward or any other Environmental Justice Community.” – Juanita Irizarry, Executive Director, Friends of the Parks

Moving Forward

The Army Corps of Engineers is failing to live up to its promise to the Illinois legislature and the community that the CDF site would already be restored into a public park along the lakeshore for people’s use and enjoyment. The Corps’ plans to continue dumping dredge wastes on top of the CDF fail to comply with the agency’s legal obligations to take a hard look at the environmental consequences and fully and fairly analyze better environmental alternatives.

Our federal governmental agencies can and should do better, especially now that the Biden administration is mandating all federal agencies to factor in environmental justice and climate change impacts in their decision-making processes.

ELPC has been working with the Alliance of the Southeast and Friends of the Parks for several years to stop the Army Corps from expanding its waste dump facility by the lakefront. We opposed the Army Corps’ permit applications required from Illinois EPA by submitting extensive comments during the public comment period in fall 2021. And we co-authored an opinion article objecting to the new expanded facility in the Chicago Sun Times in December 2021.

The U.S. Army Corps is expected to begin constructing the new facility this spring, but ELPC will continue fighting against this misguided expansion project in federal court, and in the court of public opinion. I’d like to thank Senior Attorney Mike Zoeller and Associate Attorney Tanmay Shukla for their diligent legal work, and I want to thank Media Relations Specialist Judith Nemes for working with the press to get media coverage of this important issue. Stopping this new facility from being built in a location that could further harm an overburdened community and deprive all Chicagoans of the promised lakefront parkland are causes worth fighting for. Stay tuned.

Howard A. Learner,

Chief Executive Officer & Executive Director

Howard Learner is an experienced attorney serving as the President and Executive Director of the Environmental Law & Policy Center. He is responsible for ELPC’s overall strategic leadership, policy direction, and financial platform.

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