Seize the op­por­tu­nity to bring new lake­front park to Chicago’s South­east Side

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

The last time we read ar­chi­tect Daniel Burn­ham’s plan for an open pub­lic lake­front along Chicago’s en­tire shore­line, we saw noth­ing about bury­ing it un­der 25 feet of tainted muck.

Yet that is the U.S. Army Corps of En­gi­neers’ plan for 45 lakeshore acres on the South­east Side that should in­stead be used to help com­plete Burn­ham’s vi­sion. We trust the Corps will find a sen­si­ble al­ter­na­tive.

The site at the mouth of the heav­ily in­dus­tri­al­ized Calumet River was sup­posed to be­come parkland in 1995, link­ing Calumet Park on the south to Steel­work­ers Park on the north and chip­ping away at the last four miles of Chicago’s 29 miles of lake­front that are not yet pub­lic parkland.

In­stead, un­der a change in the law, the Corps has con­tin­ued to use the site as a “con­fined dis­posal fa­cil­ity” for sed­i­ment dredged from the Calumet Har­bor and Calumet River each year to keep the chan­nel open for tug­boats, barges and ships go­ing as far as the river’s “turn­ing basin.” The shore­line site will reach ca­pac­ity in 2022, so now the Corps wants per­mis­sion to keep dump­ing un­til the ac­cu­mu­lated sed­i­ment is 25 feet higher than the ad­join­ing parks.

That’s a bad idea for five rea­sons.

♦ “We have enough toxic de­vel­op­ments on the South­east Side,” Amalia Ni­etoGomez, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Al­liance of the South­east, told us. The South­east Side is an “en­vi­ron­men­tal jus­tice” com­mu­nity al­ready be­set with pol­lu­tion from a va­ri­ety of sources, in­clud­ing con­tam­i­nants from its in­dus­trial past, brown­fields — in­clud­ing a site that was named a U.S. EPA Su­per­fund site last year — and two Lit­tle League fields that re­cently turned out to be tainted with haz­ardous ma­te­ri­als. In a new com­plaint, com­mu­nity ac­tivists have ob­jected to the scrap shred­der General Iron moving to a site on the Calumet River. Lo­cal com­mu­nity ac­tivists also have worked hard to stop fly-by-night com­pa­nies from col­lect­ing haz­ardous waste, go­ing bank­rupt and leav­ing bar­rels of the waste sit­ting in their neigh­bor­hood.

♦ Al­though the Corps would build pro­tec­tive berms, stor­ing sed­i­ment tainted with mercury, PCBs and other tox­ins right next to the lake seems un­wise at a time when ris­ing wa­ter lev­els are weak­en­ing shore­line pro­tec­tions ev­ery­where, threat­en­ing to wash the ac­cu­mu­lated ma­te­rial right back into the lake. The Friends of the Parks says con­tam­i­nants al­ready are start­ing to leach into the lake — the source of our drink­ing wa­ter. As 35-year South­east Side res­i­dent Marie Collins-Wright told us, “Why would you turn around and put more toxic [sed­i­ment] in an un­safe place?”

♦ Raising the land 25 feet would limit the ways the land can be used as pub­lic space once the Corps is fin­ished with it, in 25 years or more. Ac­cord­ing to one Corps doc­u­ment, one suit­able use would be a park­ing lot.

♦ Build­ing what is es­sen­tially a raised land­fill will in­crease fu­ture po­ten­tial li­a­bil­ity for the Chicago Park District and City of Chicago if they need to clean it up af­ter they take pos­ses­sion of the land.

♦ Hav­ing an­other park in view rather than a raised land­fill would make it eas­ier to move ahead on the stalled re­de­vel­op­ment of the nearby 40-acre U.S. Steel site.

The Army Corps did look for other sites, but com­mu­nity res­i­dents op­posed some sites. The res­i­dents also pre­ferred that one site be used for a re­de­vel­op­ment that now is bring­ing jobs to an area that needs them.

“This is an op­por­tu­nity that doesn’t come around very of­ten,” said Ders An­der­son, Green­ways di­rec­tor for the en­vi­ron­men­tal group Open­lands. “It would be in­cred­i­ble to have pub­lic ac­cess on the lake­front by the Calumet River, where you can see the large ships. I think it would be a park that would at­tract peo­ple from all over Chicago.”

That’s why we urge the Corps to pay at­ten­tion to pub­lic com­ments on their plan, which will be ac­cepted un­til the end of the day Mon­day. And we en­cour­age the mayor and ev­ery al­der­man who takes se­ri­ously Burn­ham’s grand plan for our pre­cious lake­front to weigh in strongly.

One op­tion that makes sense to us is a three-pronged pro­gram rec­om­mended by com­mu­nity groups and en­vi­ron­men­tal or­ga­ni­za­tions.

The first part of the plan would be to re­duce the amount of tainted sed­i­ment that gets into the river and lake to be­gin with. Both or­di­nary dirt and con­tam­i­nated ma­te­ri­als can blow off stor­age ar­eas and busi­ness park­ing lots or be caught up by rain­fall runoff, mak­ing their way into the Calumet River. A se­ri­ous ef­fort to cover stored ma­te­ri­als, limit runoff and reg­u­larly clean park­ing lots in the 2,500 acres of in­dus­trial land along the river would mean less — and cleaner — sed­i­ment.

The sec­ond part would be to re-use the cleaner part of the sed­i­ment from Calumet Har­bor as fill where it’s ap­pro­pri­ate, such as un­der roadbeds and in ecosys­tem restora­tion, in­stead of bury­ing it.

The third part would be to ship the rest to a land­fill that is not near res­i­den­tial com­mu­ni­ties. Al­though tainted, the sed­i­ment meets stan­dards for go­ing into any cer­ti­fied land­fill.

Yes, these op­tions are more com­pli­cated than con­tin­u­ing to dump ev­ery­thing in the same place. But didn’t Mr. Burn­ham tell us to make no small plans?

Let’s do him proud and res­cue this im­por­tant piece of Chicago’s lake­front.

TYLER LARIVIERE/SUN-TIMES

The ap­prox­i­mate lo­ca­tion for the United States Army Corps of En­gi­neers con­fined dis­posal fa­cil­ity at the mouth of the Calumet River.

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