EAST CHICAGO | After waiting 40 years for the complete dredging of the Indiana Harbor and Canal to begin, the official first scoop of contaminated sediment was delayed Monday by Mother Nature.
Strong north winds buffeted officials gathered for the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the confined disposal facility at the canal on the west side of Indianapolis Boulevard near Riley Road.
East Chicago Mayor Anthony Copeland and U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, struggled as they wielded a pair of oversized scissors to cut the red ribbon to signal the start of the mechanical dredging portion of the project.
However, the decision was made by project leaders to postpone the start of the mechanical dredging until the winds die down. That may be several days because of the strong winds the Calumet Region is expecting from the backwash of Hurricane Sandy.
Others at the ceremony representing various agencies included Col. Frederic Drummond, of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District, which is in charge of the federally funded project; and Fernando Trevino and Henry Rodriguez, of the East Chicago Waterway Management District, which has owned the property since 1994 and serves as the local partner.
Historic contamination by cancer-causing PCBs, heavy metals and petroleum compounds has built up as sediment over the decades, causing navigation problems for ships carrying iron ore and limestone to ArcelorMittal for steelmaking and major pollution concerns as contaminated sediment moves out into Lake Michigan.
In 1972, the canal was partially dredged and the contaminated sediment disposed of at a lakefront site. That practice was discontinued with the Clean Water Act of 1972.
The mechanical dredging that Drummond called “a marvel” will remove 1.8 million cubic yards of sediment and store it in specially designed contained facilities. Air monitoring of the site will check for airborne contaminates that might escape containment.
Several of those attending the ceremony once participated in protest marches to prevent the sediments from being removed and air-dried so close to schools and neighborhoods.
Ironically, said Copeland, he’s now “inside the fence” on this project.
“Twelve years ago I was a community activist in a march past this site with a lot of questions,” the mayor said. “I’m truly relieved that the air is going to be monitored. … I can sleep better knowing that less pollution is going out into the lake.”
Air monitoring has been a major issue in this project, said Rodriguez, who also protested 12 years ago.
Although the major portion of funding for the dredging and confined disposal facility comes from the federal government, additional money has been provided by ArcelorMittal to continue the dredging on the adjacent berthing and docking areas at the steel mill.
Tom Barnes, manager of ArcelorMittal, said the dredging will benefit both the environment and the economy of East Chicago.
“Our lifeline at ArcelorMittal is the canal. Without the dredging, we have to bring in light loads (of iron ore and limestone) and that increases costs,” Barnes said. “Now we will be able to increase vessel tonnage. This is a keystone to the economic health of East Chicago and Northwest Indiana.”
Drummond credited Visclosky for “pushing the project through the congressional and political side” to get the project off the ground.
“This is a classic example of how this should be done in the United States,” said Visclosky, citing the cooperative effort of federal, state and local governmental agencies and private industry.
“Only about one-third of our harbors are dredged to the depth needed to allow cargo ships to enter. That’s a stupid economic policy,” he said.
“There will be less sediment going out into the largest body of freshwater in the world. … This is a good example of investing our tax dollars wisely.”