Opponents of a toxic sludge landfill on Lake Michigan have filed a lawsuit to stop a plan by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to expand the dump, which has already operated for nearly three decades longer than initially intended.
The Environmental Law and Policy Center filed the suit Monday in U.S. District Court on behalf of the Alliance of the Southeast and Friends of the Parks.
At issue is a 45-acre site on Lake Michigan, at the mouth of the Calumet River, adjacent to Calumet Park. Since 1984, after the Army Corps dredges Chicago-area waterways for navigation purposes, the sediment is stored in what’s known as a Confined Disposal Facility.
Now the facility — initially only authorized by the Illinois legislature for a 10-year period — has reached capacity. The Corps had said it would turn the property over to the Chicago Park District when the dump maxed out, but instead, the Corps wants to extend the life of the facility by building a 25-foot-tall vertical expansion.
The lawsuit alleges the Corps does not have authority to build the new dumpsite and has violated federal environmental and dredge-management laws by failing to adequately consider the project’s environmental impacts and less harmful alternatives.
The Corps only explored options for new facilities within the 10th Ward, home to the current dump. Residents balked at having a second waste site built in their community, but that left the Corps’ expansion plan as the only viable alternative.
“We are tired of being the dumping ground for toxic materials in the city,” said Amalia NietoGomez, executive director of Alliance of the Southeast, in a statement. “Chicago’s Southeast Side is already overburdened, and we don’t need an expansion to add more toxic dredgings from the river right next to Calumet Park, where families gather, do sports, have picnics and play in the water.”
Neighbors are concerned about pollutants from the facility and possible impacts on people’s health and their drinking water, she said.
Contaminants in the dredged materials include mercury, PCBs, arsenic, barium, cadmium, manganese, chromium, copper, lead and more. Friends of the Parks has long been concerned with the potential for these chemicals to leach into Lake Michigan.
“Chicago’s lakefront is one of our city’s most precious gems,” said Juanita Irizarry, executive director of Friends of the Parks, in a statement. “The (facility) lingers on our lakefront as a remnant of previous eras’ zoning and environmental policies. It is a travesty to continue to designate prime lakefront park land, that is next to other parks and beaches, for a toxic dump.”
The Army Corps did not immediately respond to a request for comment. According to a status update on the Corps’ project website, “Vertical expansion of the CDF is underway and scheduled for completion in (fiscal year) 2025.”
No river dredging has occurred since 2020, and harbor dredging last took place in 2022, according to the Corps.
A spokesperson for the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency said the Corps construction permit application “remains under review.”