Grand Calumet River and Indiana Harbor Ship Canal: An Indiana Area Of Concern
2017 Annual Area of Concern Conference
The Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) and the Citizens Advisory for the Remediation of the Environment (CARE) held the 2017 Annual Grand Calumet River Area of Concern (AOC) Seminar on Thursday, October 26, 2017. This all-day event featured presentations from federal, State, and local leaders on the status of the Grand Calumet River restoration efforts and future plans, as well as a panel discussion with experts with a long history of involvement in the restoration. IDEM and CARE would like to thank all those who attended.
Registration is now open for the event, which will be held Thursday, October 26, 2017, at The Diamond Center of U.S. Steel Yard in Gary. Seats are currently available on a first-come, first-served basis.
The Grand Calumet River: Becoming “Grand” Again
The ecosystem of one of Lake Michigan’s most polluted waterways -- the Grand Calumet River and the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal -- is being restored thanks to the partnerships created by those working toward a better environmental future. The once highly polluted and damaged area is on its way to becoming truly “grand” again.
The Grand Calumet River and Indiana Harbor Ship Canal
The Grand Calumet River/Indiana Harbor Ship Canal is a complex waterway located primarily within Lake County, Indiana, that has been dramatically altered [PDF] by people. It is comprised of several portions:
- East Branch Grand Calumet River:
- This runs approximately 12 miles westward from its headwaters in the lagoons of Marquette Park of Gary to the junction with the West Branch of the River in East Chicago.
- West Branch Grand Calumet River:
- The entire West Branch is roughly 6 miles in length, extending from junction with the East Branch of the River in East Chicago to the confluence with the Calumet River in Burnham, Illinois. The portion west of Columbia Avenue tends to flow westward toward Illinois, while the area to the east tends to flow eastward toward the Indiana Ship Harbor Canal.
- Indiana Harbor Ship Canal:
- This waterway, located primarily in East Chicago, connects the Grand Calumet River to Lake Michigan. It is made up of two canals, the Lake George Branch Canal and the Harbor Canal. The harbor was constructed by the Inland Steel Company beginning in 1901, and houses the busiest such facility on Lake Michigan. The United Army Corps of Engineers is responsible for dredging the navigational portion of the Harbor and Canal.
A Historically Polluted River:
Prior to strict, modern environmental regulations, industries, factories, and municipal sanitary districts would often discharge chemicals and contaminants, such as polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), mercury, and oils, directly into the Grand Calumet River and the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal. Much of this pollution would stick to, or seep in between, the grains of clay, sand, or silt at the river bottom. The buildup of such pollution in the river sediments caused drastic harm to the ecosystem. These problems caused great concern among regulators and members of the public. In 1967, one federal official referred to the Grand Calumet River as “the filthiest stream in the world.” Bacterial water quality limits at the time were violated in 95 percent of tested water samples and an oily film covered the waters of the Indiana Ship Harbor.
Image from 1967 Chicago Tribune Series, “Save Our Lake.”
Fixing the Problem:
During the late 1960s, public outcry over pollution in the Great Lakes Region led to increased focus on protecting the environment. Over the next two decades, federal and state governments adopted new environmental regulations that changed how municipalities and industries could operate. Some of these regulatory programs were:
- The solid waste program, established by Subtitle D of the Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA);
- The hazardous waste program, established by RCRA Subtitle C;
- The underground storage tank (UST) program established by RCRA Subtitle I; and
- The National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) Program set up by the Clean Water Act.
Over time, these changes dramatically reduced the discharge of contaminants into the river. Unfortunately, even with new operational standards, the impacts of prior (legacy) contaminants had already caused great ecological harm to the river, leaving it highly impaired for human and wildlife use. Citizen’s groups, such as the Grand Calumet Taskforce, were formed to raise public awareness of, and advocate for restoration of, the polluted area.
The history of contamination and public focus on the Grand Calumet River and Indiana Harbor Ship Canal were instrumental in convincing the International Joint Commission to identify the region as a problem area within the Great Lakes as early as 1975. In the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the United States and Canada created the Area of Concern Program, which was designed to give explicit consideration to the Great Lakes ecosystem as a whole. At the same time, the IJC formally recognized the region as one of the initial 42 (later 43) Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs). The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which was tasked with overseeing the agreement in the United States, required that states develop a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) for each AOC that addresses the 14 beneficial use impairments (BUIs) affecting the ecosystem of each listed waterway.
IDEM developed a RAP for Indiana’s AOC with the aid of the Citizens Advisory for the Remediation of the Environment (CARE) Committee, a group of IDEM-designated individuals who provide input into the RAP planning process. The RAP thoroughly documents the ecological problems leading to BUIs in the AOC. It also identifies the key restoration work, such as sediment remediation and habitat restoration, needed to address these problems.
Over the past 20 years, IDEM and the CARE Committee have been planning for and implementing ecosystem projects to remove the BUIs and delist the Grand Calumet River and Indiana Harbor Ship Canal from the list of Great Lakes AOCs. With the help of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Great Lakes Legacy Act, and funding from state and local partners, great progress has been made toward remediating the river and surrounding areas.
Living within the Area of Concern:
In general, living, working, or recreating within an AOC should not significantly affect one’s day-to-day life. However, it is important to know about these restrictions on the beneficial uses in your area:
- Do not eat fish caught in the AOC without first reviewing the Indiana Fish Consumption Advisory.
- Do not swim at the beaches located within the AOC without checking for swimming advisories or closures based on E. coli levels.