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Nothing Grand About The Grand Calumet River

By JoshMogerman in News on Jan 27, 2013 9:00PM

Despite all the attention given to problems on the Chicago River, there are far more troubled waterways in the region. A two-part look at the Grand Calumet River from the ever-busy green scribe Kari Lydersen in Great Lakes Echo this week reminds us that we need look just a little further south for one of the nation’s filthiest rivers.

Lydersen also covered the Grand Cal for the New York Times and Chicago News Cooperative in 2011, noting the sad state of the river as new cleanup efforts were getting underway:

The Grand Calumet carries this toxic brew into Lake Michigan about eight miles from Chicago, each year dumping about 200,000 cubic yards of sediment full of PCBs, heavy metals and “some of the nastiest, most toxic contaminants ever,” said Cameron Davis, the White House’s Great Lakes czar.

In the 1990s when he worked as a federal biologist, Mr. [Thomas] Simon found that more than half of the fish in the Grand Calumet had deformities, eroded fins, lesions and tumors. Statewide in Indiana, only one in 10,000 fish have these symptoms.

That sad state continues today along its banks in Northwest Indiana. Industrial and municipal runoff still makes up 90% of the river’s flow, which also carries sediment laden with a century’s worth of steel, petroleum and chemical waste directly into Lake Michigan at a billion gallons per day clip.

But there is hope for a less toxic river. In recent years, the Army Corps of Engineers has pulled three quarters of a million cubic yards of that contaminated sediment out of the Grand Cal (that’s about 2+ feet of gunk yanked out all along a 2.5 mile stretch of the waterway) and covered it with a barrier that will contain the rest of the sediment below (which could be up to 20 feet deep in places). The dredging has been funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which looks to be at risk for the chopping block in DC, jeopardizing a continuation of the cleanup. Still, efforts from communities along the river to reduce the amount of sewage and stormwater dumped into the Grand Cal will also help lessen the mess in the coming years.

The Grand Cal is part of the broader Calumet River system, which also flows through Chicago’s South Side and suburbs. The waterways connect Lake Michigan with the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal (and eventually, the Mississippi River) via the most heavily industrial portions of the region. We combed through the Chicagoist Flickr pool for a fascinating look at the striking landscape along the rivers’ banks which reveals the gritty economic forces that helped build this town.