After a spat with city and state officials, community groups are urging a federal court to block the expansion of a lakefront landfill in Chicago’s heavily polluted Southeast.
The lawsuit, filed Monday in U.S. District Court, accuses the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers of defaulting on a 1982 agreement to cover the 45-acre landfill after it was filled with toxic sediment dredged from the Calumet River and Cal-Sag Canal.
Under an agreement brokered by state lawmakers, the once-flooded site was to be transformed years ago into an extension of nearby Calumet Park at 98th Street and Lake Michigan. Instead, the Army Corps plans to continue piling the noxious dirt at the site for another 20 years, leaving it 25 feet higher than it is today.
The sediment dredged from the river is contaminated with harmful metals including arsenic, cadmium, lead and mercury, and dangerous polychlorinated biphenyls, commonly known as PCBs, which accumulate in fish and humans.
Groups that want to block disposal of more dredged trash are alarmed by government studies in the 1980s and 1990s that found alarming concentrations of PCBs in fish and crustaceans harvested from the dump, which was designed to allow the lake to flow freely back and forth through him.
The groups were unconvinced by the Army Corps’ promises that an even larger dump could be safely operated.
“We’re tired of being a dumping ground for toxic materials in the city,” said Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of the Southeast Alliance, a coalition of neighborhood churches, businesses and community groups in a predominantly Latino and black part of Chicago.
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Army Corps officials said they need to conduct regular dredging to allow commercial ships to pass through the waterways that connect the Great Lakes to the Mississippi River basin. The federal agency decided to continue using its existing dump — bureaucrats call it a closed dump — after neighborhood groups opposed building another dump farther down the Calumet River.
City and state officials signed off on the Army Corps’ plan to continue using the lakefront landfill. But a new lawsuitfiled by the nonprofit Environmental Law and Policy Center, alleges that the permit issued by the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency violates federal environmental laws and skips strict controls to make sure PCBs and heavy metals don’t wash into the lake and river.
Government documents show that past monitoring, which was later scaled back at the request of the Army Corps, found that the concentration of pollution exceeded federal and state standards adopted after the landfill was built with levees designed to protect Lake Michigan from dredged sediment.
Howard Lerner, the center’s executive director, accused the Army Corps of glossing over the environmental consequences and neglecting to study other disposal options.
What’s more, Lerner said, the plan to expand the landfill runs counter to the Biden administration’s pledge to focus all federal agencies on fighting climate change and working toward environmental justice in low-income, predominantly black, Latino, and indigenous communities that are disproportionately exposed to industrial pollution.
More intense storms and more frequent fluctuations in lake levels — both caused by climate change — increase the risk that the Army Corps of Engineers landfill could rupture and cause an environmental disaster that would threaten the region’s drinking water source, Lerner and other opponents argue.
The Southeast Side is already heavily burdened by pollution, a toxic legacy left by steel companies that left Chicago decades ago and recent arrivals.
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Four miles south of the Army Corps dump is the last town Superfund websitea federal designation reserved for the nation’s most polluted facilities.
People who live on the southeast side breathe the dirtiest air of the city, monitoring data show. More than 75 polluters in the area have been investigated for violations of the Clean Air Act since 2014, including companies polluting yards and playgrounds brain-damaging manganese and petroleum coke, damaging the lungs.
Neighborhood groups and Biden’s EPA put pressure on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration last year refuse permission for Reserve Management Group, an Ohio company that built a scrap shredder in the neighborhood near George Washington High School after a similar facility in affluent, predominantly white Lincoln Park closed.
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As the Army Corps of Engineers continues to release the discharges, there are additional questions about access to Lake Michigan and the safety of people vacationing on nearby beaches.
The Friends of the Parks group is calling on the federal government to back a deal to turn the dump into an expansion of the lakefront park and realize Daniel Burnham’s 1909 vision of a fully public shoreline.
“Chicago’s lakefront is one of our city’s most precious jewels,” said Juanita Irizarry, the group’s executive director. “To continue to designate prime lakefront park land … for a toxic waste dump is a travesty.”