The potential for additional PCBs from the dredging could add to a heavy pollution burden already faced by East Chicago’s 29,764 residents, who are 92 percent Hispanic and African American, according to U.S. Census data. Thirty-six percent of its households have incomes under the poverty level, more than three times higher than Indiana’s poverty rate. The region, Lake County, has the state’s highest hospitalization rate for asthma, according to the Indiana Department of Community Health.
There are no local studies linking the contamination to health problems but the canal has long symbolized the region’s industrial history and legacy contamination.
Most people in East Chicago “have never known an environment that wasn’t severely degraded,” said Alex da Silva, a professor and director of science programs at Calumet College who worked with the East Chicago community leading up to the dredging.
The harbor is one of the busiest in the Great Lakes, with 10 to 15 million tons of iron ore, limestone, coke, gypsum, steel, cement, petroleum and other products passing through there each year, generating about $894 million annually. The Army Corps estimates that harbor activity supports about 3,665 jobs.
“The economic reality is that the people who live there are not going to benefit economically from this,” Hornbuckle said. “The big corporations need the barges and they’re the ones benefiting. The people who live there are the people taking the health risk and they don’t have much voice.”
Local officials, however, disagree, saying the project will improve East Chicago’s environment.
“The dredging project will certainly improve our local economy and help clean our waterways,” Fernando Trevino, executive director of the East Chicago Waterway Management District, which owns the landfill, said in a prepared statement.
Indiana Department of Environmental Management Commissioner Thomas Easterly called it “an important step towards remediation and restoration efforts to improve water quality."
The project is designed mostly for improving navigation in the canal. But Army Corps project manager Mike Nguyen said there will be environmental benefits from reducing the 88 pounds of PCBs that the canal sends into Lake Michigan every year.
Da Silva agreed. “Many people in this region are not just fishing for fun, they’re in the river and canal trying to catch fish to eat -- regardless of advisories,” he said.
Joel Brammeier, president of the Alliance for the Great Lakes, said his organization “absolutely supports dredging to get rid of these contaminants” but remains concerned over the disposal.
The removed sediment will be taken to a newly built landfill nearby. The landfill, where the former refinery was, sits within 800 yards of East Chicago Central High School.
Miller said there will be long-term air monitoring at the high school. The EPA conducted a health study in 2006 for the landfill and found “relatively low health risks to nearby residents.”
The entire Chicago metro area (East Chicago is about 25 miles southeast of Chicago) has elevated levels of PCBs and other contaminants, Hites said.
“PCB levels in cities like Chicago and Cleveland are sometimes as much as 30 times higher” than non-urban sites in the Great Lakes basin, said Hites, whose 2011 study showed air in the Chicago area has some of the most elevated PCB levels of American cities.
Sources weren’t identified, but Hites speculates the elevated levels reflect past use in the industrial region.