Waukegan worries over depth of dredging and responsibility
By Trine Tsouderos
A suburban harbor once called one of the most PCB-polluted
spots in the world is in line for a cleanup that could
serve as an example for the Great Lakes region--if local
and federal officials can agree on a plan.
But after 16 months of negotiations, Waukegan aldermen
say they still have reservations. The main sticking points--how
deep to dredge and who would be responsible for a Superfund
landfill where the contaminated muck would be buried--have
put the brakes on a project that federal officials say
has national importance.
As officials prepare to meet Friday in Chicago to hammer
out a cleanup plan for Waukegan Harbor, U.S. Rep. Mark
Kirk (R-Ill.) said he needs a deal by April 1 to meet
a congressional subcommittee deadline for federal spending
"This is a fantastic, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,"
said Philip Bernstein, regional director of planning for
the Army Corps of Engineers, which would dredge the harbor
during the cleanup. "It would be a shame to let it
go by the wayside."
A joint U.S.-Canadian commission has listed Waukegan
Harbor as one of the 43 most polluted sites in the Great
Lakes. It could become the first U.S. site taken off that
list, officials at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
A cleanup of the harbor would serve as a model of interagency
harmony and forge new ties that could launch similar cleanups
of other sites, federal officials say.
"We need to do this, and we need to do this quickly,"
said Kirk, who has promised to use his leverage on the
House Appropriations Committee to secure funding for the
$20 million project.
In what officials describe as an unusual collaboration,
the EPA and the Army Corps have agreed to work together
at the site. But if officials cannot agree on where to
bury the dredged material, the corps may not be willing
to dredge the harbor. Without the cost savings of having
the corps pull up contaminated material while dredging,
the project would likely die, federal officials said.
"We wouldn't be able to do it without the Army Corps,"
said EPA Regional Administrator Tom Skinner. "The
opportunity is now."
Last month, President Bush announced he would ask Congress
for $45 million to help clean as much as six polluted
sites along the Great Lakes. Though the EPA has not announced
where the money would be spent, Waukegan is eligible.
Jeff Jeep, Waukegan's environmental attorney, said the
city, the EPA, the Army Corps and parties responsible
for the landfill will meet Friday at Dykema Gossett, a
Chicago law firm.
The city has no choice but to be cautious, he said. "We
are making a recommendation that will affect generations
Waukegan officials agree the cleanup is necessary, particularly
as the city seeks to transform its harbor from a jumble
of brownfields and industrial plants to a regional destination
with homes, shops and restaurants.
But aldermen say they are worried that plans to dredge
the harbor would clear the way for increased industrial
activity by making it possible for ships to enter and
exit with full loads.
They're also worried that the city would end up responsible
for the Yeoman Creek landfill in Waukegan, where the PCB-laced
material would likely be dumped, Jeep said.
"I have to come back to the City Council and say,
`Here's your risk.' And that risk has to be balanced against
the benefits," Jeep said.
In the 1970s, the EPA discovered polychlorinated biphenyls,
or PCBs, in Waukegan Harbor at dangerously high levels.
PCBs are known to cause tumors, reproductive failures
and liver disorders.
Officials blamed Outboard Marine Corp., which had dumped
hydraulic fluid into the water for more than 20 years.
A lengthy court battle to get Outboard Marine to pay for
the cleanup helped bankrupt the company.
The EPA launched a massive cleanup in the 1990s, spending
more than $20 million to remove tons of PCB-soaked material.
In 1993, Waukegan Harbor was declared mostly clean, but
PCB contamination remained at the harborbottom.
A chance discussion between an EPA official and an Army
Corps official led them to discover that the agencies
had mutual interests when it came to Waukegan, Bernstein
said. The corps was interested in dredging the harbor,
and the EPA wanted to clean it up.
For decades, sediment and decreasing lake levels have
made the port shallower, forcing ships to enter and exit
with lighter loads. The port is about 18 or 19 feet, while
the authorized depth is 23 feet, according to the corps.
"We thought, why not pool our resources here and
not just do the navigational dredging but also clean up
the total harbor?" Bernstein said.
The project would take six months to a year, during which
the corps would dredge the harbor with EPA oversight.
Some city officials don't like the idea of more industrial
boat traffic that a deeper harbor could attract.
"It's not like we want to kick industry off the
lake by any means," said Ald. Pat Needham (7th).
"I don't see any need to dredge any deeper than that.
What's the advantage? Industry down there is getting along
just fine at the depth that it's at."
The city's liability for the Yeoman Creek landfill also
is under negotiation, Jeep said. Under discussion is the
possibility of reducing the city's liability or placing
a cap on it. The landfill on Waukegan's north side was
declared a federal Superfund cleanup area in 1989.
The landfill cleanup was to be done by the end of last
year or early this year, but those responsible for the
site--including the city, Waukegan School District 60,
now-defunct Outboard Marine, Browning-Ferris Industries
Inc., Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co.--kept it open for the
The cost of keeping the landfill open has been more than
$500,000, said Harvey Sheldon, an attorney for District
60. The district pays about 10 percent of that cost, Sheldon
The school board and others responsible for the landfill
face a mid-March deadline to contact contractors to resume
work to close the landfill, he said.
If Waukegan dumps additional material in the landfill,
the city could end up liable for it, Jeep said.
"A landfill never goes away. It is there forever,"
Jeep said. "This will be a perpetual responsibility."