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Grand Cal partners tour river restoration work
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Grand Cal partners tour river restoration work

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EAST CHICAGO | East Chicago City Planner Richard Morrisroe's son once thought if he fell out of a canoe on the Grand Calumet River, he'd be a goner.

"He thought if he fell in, his toes at least if not he himself, would disintegrate," Morrisroe said.

Now, he can envision future generations canoeing on the river without fear thanks to a multi-agency remediation project decades in the making.

Morrisroe gathered with Save the Dunes and other representatives from local, state and federal agencies, the Hoosier Environmental Council and The Nature Conservancy for a tour Oct. 17 of remediation projects on the Grand Calumet River.

The tour, coordinated by Save the Dunes, was aimed at highlighting the work and thanking representatives from the offices of U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky, D-Merrillville, and U.S. Sen. Joe Donnelly, D-Ind., for their support in the efforts and encouraging support for future funding.

"They've been our champions to maintain (Great Lakes Restoration Initiative) funding for the last four or five years," Nicole Barker, executive director of Save the Dunes, said. "We are indebted to them."

The U.S. EPA in 1978 listed the Grand Calumet River as one of 42 areas of concern in the nation. It was the only one to have all 14 criteria for designation as an area of concern listed as impaired.

Remediation work on the river has been more than 20 years in the making, with discussions beginning at the state level in the early 1990s.

Federal and state officials have worked to remove more than half a million cubic yards of polluted sediment from the waterway, a legacy from more than a century of environmental degradation caused by heavy industry in the region.

Carol Wodrich, director of ecological services at the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, said the $56 million placed in a trust by nine parties involved in contaminating the river over the years is quickly running out.

Partnerships for land maintenance and conservation with groups such as Save the Dunes, Shirley Heinze Land Trust and The Nature Conservancy, Wodrich said, are essential to future health of the project.

Paul Labus, program director for The Nature Conservancy's Northwest Indiana office, said waterfowl are starting to return to the river, signaling its recovery.

"People used to come from all over to Northwest Indiana to view those birds as they came through here," Labus said. "This is the rebirth of that habitat."

Mark Lopez, Visclosky's chief of staff, said an area of concern "is something no one should have to live near."

"In 20 years, hopefully everyone will assume this is what it always looked like," Lopez said. 

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