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Great Lakes Article:

Harbor cleanup elusive
Waukegan worries over depth of dredging and responsibility for landfill
By Trine Tsouderos
Chicago Tribune
02/13/04


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 requests.

"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 said.

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 to come."

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 harbor cleanup.

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 said.

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."

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