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It has taken a few decades, but things are now changing for the positive in the Grand Calumet River Area of Concern. The once highly polluted and damaged area is on its way to becoming a recovering riverine habitat due to the partnerships and drive of those individuals working on the Remedial Action Plan (RAP). Areas once contaminated and filled with invasive species are being transformed to provide a better future for area residents and wildlife. The RAP is working to make the Grand Calumet River truly “Grand” again.
The post World War II era brought dramatic changes to the area around the Grand Calumet River with an increase in industrial and residential construction. The area was transformed into a hub for industrial products drawing people in to work in the mills and factories. However, this increase in production also brought many chemical contaminants that were not well regulated. Due to this, the three municipal sanitary districts and the numerous industrial plants dumped contaminants directly into the river. These contaminants had negative impacts on the river and its surrounding habitat. In the 1970’s, the Chicago Tribune ran a series of articles on the condition of Lake Michigan and its’ near shore tributaries. The Grand Calumet River and Indiana Harbor Ship Canal were deemed to be among the worst in terms of overall pollution.
The 1970’s and 1980’s brought new environmental regulations and many changes in how municipal and industrial dischargers could operate. Limits were set on the amount of chemicals that could be released into the environment. Even with new regulations, the legacy contaminants that had been discharged into the river for decades were not being removed. In 1978, for the area around the Great Lakes the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was established between the United States and Canada. This agreement identified the 43 most degraded areas and labeled them as Areas of Concern. These Areas of Concern were identified based on their impairment to any of the following fourteen listed beneficial uses of the water way and surrounding area.
The identification of the 43 Areas of Concern led to the development of Remedial Action Plans (RAPs). The RAPs were designed to be the blueprint for the remediation of the Areas of Concern. The Grand Calumet River and Indiana Harbor Ship Canal was designated as the most highly impaired Area of Concern (AOC) with all fourteen beneficial uses being impaired. In an effort to try and repair the damage done to the area, the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM) was charged with drafting the RAP for the Grand Calumet River AOC.
However, due to the scale of this effort and the many people groups affected, IDEM appointed a group of individuals known as the Citizens Advisory for the Remediation of the Environment committee (CARE). The CARE committee includes representation from citizen groups, industry, local government, and academia and has been involved in the development, modification, and implementation of the RAP since the 70’s. The RAP has evolved through the years as the U.S. EPA has required the development of different stages.
The Stage 1 RAP defined the environmental problems, the Stage 2 RAP included remedial and regulatory measures to restore the AOC by taking an ecosystem approach. Stage 2 addendum, RAP 2.5, evaluated whether the multitude of regulatory and remedial efforts would restore beneficial uses enough to remove the GCR/IHSC from the list of AOCs. The current update to the RAP Stage 2.5 outlines the work required to restore each beneficial use and how it can be accomplished.
The Grand Calumet River AOC encompasses the cities of Gary, East Chicago, Hammond, and Whiting in the Northwest section of Lake County Indiana. The map depicts the bounds of the impaired AOC.
New regulations and legal actions got the ball rolling for on the ground remedial action in the AOC. The first major project to remove contaminants from the river was conducted by The U.S. Steel Corporation, pursuant to a 1999 Federal Clean Water Act Consent Decree and a 1998 Resource Conservation and Recovery Act (RCRA) Corrective Action Order, US Steel dredged a five mile segment of the east branch of the river and removed more than 800,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river by 2007.
During this time, the newly instated Great Lakes Legacy Act (GLLA) of 2002 along with the Natural Resources Damage Assessment fund and local partners combined to form the Grand Calumet River Restoration Fund Council. This council provided funding to plan and dredge portions of the East and West branch of the river. Some of the dredge and cap work is complete and showing positive changes with one of the most visible being the return of great blue herons, egrets, and other migratory birds to Roxanna Marsh. At the completion of all the funded projects an additional 700,000 cubic yards of contaminated river sediment will be removed from the environment.
Along with the GLLA dredging, the US Army Corp of Engineers for the first time since 1972 has begun dredging the Indiana Harbor ship canal out to Lake Michigan.
Other significant steps in the remediation of the AOC include the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) being passed by congress to provide millions of dollars in aid to the Great Lakes with specific support for the restoration of the Areas of Concern.
Through GLRI funding, over 300 acres of habitat restoration is taking place in the Grand Calumet River AOC which will provide dune and swale habitat for many species including Karner blue butterfly, blandings turtle, spotted turtle and various migratory birds.
Research and monitoring is being conducted all around the Grand Calumet River AOC through university, federal, state, and local partners. This research will aid the planning for the future work in the AOC. The vast amount of work that has gone into the AOC is lengthy and technical, but the best way to see results is through the use of before and after pictures. People say that pictures paint a thousand words and these deserve a couple thousand in gratitude to those who have worked so hard to make positive changes in the Grand Calumet River AOC.
The goal of the Remedial Action Plan is to restore the beneficial uses of the area so that they are no longer impaired. The U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) refers to this as removing a beneficial use impairment (BUI). Before the U.S. EPA will formally remove a BUI from the AOC, appropriate data and documentation must be submitted indicating that the AOC has met the removal criteria. Even with the vast amount of work going on in the AOC, it still remains impaired for many BUIs. Through the efforts of the CARE committee in 2011, the added costs to agriculture and industry BUI was removed. And in 2012, the restrictions on drinking water consumption, or taste and odor BUI was removed.
The removal of these BUIs is a great accomplishment for the region as it is the first time since initiation of the Remedial Action Plan Program that a BUI has been removed for the Grand Calumet River Area of Concern. The AOC is only listed as impaired for 12 BUIs.
Living, working, or recreating within an AOC should not significantly affect ones day-to-day life; however, it is important to know what the restrictions are on the beneficial uses in your area.
In February and March of 2014 the IDEM RAP Coordinator met with the multiple land managing organizations of the AOC to develop a list of the habitat sites and capture in writing additional restoration needs at those sites. The product of those meetings is the Grand Calumet River Area of Concern Habitat Report 2014.
For additional information on the Grand Calumet River/ Indiana Harbor Ship Canal Area of Concern please contact:
Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Northwest Regional Office
330 W US HWY 30, Suite F
Valparaiso, IN 46385
The U.S. EPA GLNPO website provides additional information on the other 42 Areas of Concern and the Remedial Action Plan.