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Canal dredging in East Chicago

Workers dredge the western branch of the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal in East Chicago in 2012.

Dredging of the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal began this week as state and federal environmental regulators continued to study an off-site disposal option for the most highly contaminated sediments, U.S. EPA said.

Contractors working for the Army Corps of Engineers began work Monday and were expected to dredge about 120,000 cubic yards before concluding this fall, according to an Army Corps news release.

Sediment containing polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, at concentrations of more than 50 parts per million will not be dredged while the off-site disposal option remains under review, said Natalie Mills, project manager for the Army Corps of Engineers.

To store sediment containing PCBs at concentrations of more than 50 ppm at the confined disposal facility, the Army Corps would need the Environmental Protection Agency and Indiana Department of Environmental Management to sign off on a Toxic Substances Control Act permit.

The Army Corps submitted an application for a TCSA permit last year, but environmental activists and residents fought the proposal. They argued East Chicago and nearby communities already were overburdened with a legacy of toxic industrial contamination.

The confined disposal facility is just blocks from East Chicago Central High School and the new Carrie Gosch Elementary School, where students living in the lead- and arsenic-contaminated USS Lead Superfund site were transferred in 2016 after the School Board voted to close their neighborhood school.

The Robertsdale neighborhood in Hammond and Whiting, where EPA is removing lead-contaminated soil from residential properties near the former Federated Metals site, is less than a half mile from the confined disposal facility.

EPA and IDEM in September announced they had agreed to complete a feasibility study and remedial design for removal of TSCA-level sediment.

That feasibility study is ongoing, EPA said. The Army Corps' TSCA permit application remains pending.

If the study determines that off-site disposal of TSCA-level sediment is feasible and environmental regulators select it as a remedy, dredging of the most contaminated sediments likely would begin in 2019, EPA said.

If the remedy were approved, TSCA-level sediment would be dredged, dewatered and disposed of a TSCA-certified landfill off-site.

The Community Strategy Group, which was among the organizations that opposed the Army Corps TSCA permit application last year, remains concerned about the location of any potential off-site disposal options, group leader Thomas Frank said.

The Community Strategy Group does not want contaminated sediment transferred to another environmental justice community like East Chicago, he said. EPA considers areas to be environmental justice communities when they have vulnerable populations, including minority, low-income, tribal and indigenous residents, who face greater risks because of proximity to contaminated sites or because of a lack of resources to avoid exposure to pollution.

The Community Strategy Group remains in communication with EPA and other agencies regarding their work on the feasibility study, Frank said.

"We regret that there's been very little communication over the past six months in updating us," he said.

The Grand Calumet River and Indiana Harbor Ship Canal were first identified as an Area of Concern in 1987. Sediments in the system are saturated with 362 toxic and cancer-causing substances, including PCBs, heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. 

The Great Lakes Area of Concern remedial action plan, first drafted in 1991, called for dredging of the harbor and ship canal in part because of the potential threat contaminated sediments posed to the drinking water supply of East Chicago, Whiting and Hammond. 

More than 1 million cubic yards of sediment dredged from the canal since 2012 has been removed to a confined disposal facility at 3500 Indianapolis Blvd.

The Army Corps plans to eventually dredge the system's channels to a congressionally authorized navigational depth of 22 feet, according to a news release.

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Public Safety Reporter

Sarah covers crime, federal courts and breaking news for The Times. She joined the paper in 2004 after graduating from Purdue University Calumet.