The process of dredging the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal has begun, and it's going to be a lengthy process.
"This major harbor was not maintained for 40 years" because of the struggle to find a suitable place to dispose of the polluted sediment, Jennifer Miller of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers explained. The last time it was dredged was before the Clean Water Act became law.
The water isn't 29 feet deep, which is the goal of the Corps project. It's 20 feet deep in the middle and as little as eight feet in some spots.
"In the middle there were deep holes, kind of where the boats scoured it," Miller said.
The sediment dredged up in a normal waterway would have been deposited on a nearby beach or in the lake. But this isn't normal sediment.
"It's black and oily," Miller said. "It looks and smells like axle grease."
The sediment is being deposited into the former landfill site, which is surrounded by barriers to keep the pollutants from leaking out, and covered with water. The sediment is being pumped through long hoses so human hands don't have to come into contact with the toxins.
Essentially, it's converting a former refinery site to land suitable for a 140-acre park. That makes sense.
Miller, speaking at an event cohosted by Purdue University Calumet's Water Institute and Department of Mechanical Engineering, showed a chart of toxins found in the channel. "This is what's in it," she said. "Basically, all the bad stuff you'll ever find."
The next time the waterway is dredged, it should be a lot easier. Industrial processes have changed in recent decades. People are more environmentally responsible.
But that next time is a long way off. This current project will take until 2035. There's a lot of toxic muck to dispose of.
Fortunately, it's being disposed of properly. Disposing of it in a confined disposal facility adjacent to the waterway seems to be the smartest option.
Trucking those nasty chemicals to another site would create the opportunity for spills. Besides, using the confined disposal facility also caps the already polluted land where the dredged material is to be stored.
When this project is done, convert the facility into a park. But don't be in hurry to play golf, soccer or softball there.
This dredging project will take decades because it has been postponed so long, which means there's plenty of time later to plan the park that eventually will be developed on that site.