SCHERERVILLE | Stakeholders do not have to choose between the environment and the economy, a federal representative told Lake County leaders Friday.

"Economic revitalization and environmental revitalization or remediation go hand in hand," Scott Ireland said. "One does not beget the other."

Ireland, special assistant to the senior adviser on the Great Lakes at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, addressed the Lake County Advancement Committee at the group's monthly luncheon meeting at Teibel's Family Restaurant in Schererville on the progress in the Grand Calumet River Area of Concern.

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.

"When I first started working on this in the early '90s, there were folks that never believed it would be delisted," Ireland said. "I believe it's a closer possibility than it has ever been before." 

Crews have removed and mitigated millions of pounds of oily sediment created by more than a century of industrial abuses. Removing the contaminated sediments involves a dredge and cap process. Contaminants are dredged from the river, dried and sent to a commercial landfill and the river bed is then capped to prevent any remaining contaminants from leeching into the waterway.

To date, $165 million has been spent on the project, with the feds paying 65 percent through EPA programs and the state paying 35 percent.

Environmental remediation in the Great Lakes region is showing a $2 return on every $1 invested and in some cases, up to $6 for every $1 spent, he said.

"It's not just an ecological thing," he said. "It can be a good economic driver as well."

Environmental remediation leads to increased property values, recreation, tourism, fishing and reduced costs to municipalities, he said.

The return of native species to the Roxanna Marsh just west of Indianapolis Boulevard, Ireland said, was priceless for one woman who has lived near the marsh for 70 years.

"The fact she could go there and see birds she'd never seen before brought her to tears," he said. "We have the legacy we were left with. Now we have the opportunity to restore the environment and have a healthy economic environment as well."

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