Calumet project making new waves
Critics fear impact of marina project
By Julie Deardorff
Published June 16, 2002
A new plan for a 1,000-boat marina in
Lake Calumet has sparked an environmental skirmish over
the future of the long-suffering lake, an unusual ecological
gem surrounded by shuttered steel mills, rusty grain elevators
and retired garbage dumps.
Never mind that the heavily polluted, postindustrial landscape
of southeast Chicago seems an unlikely recreational hot
spot. The Illinois International Port District, which has
governed the land since the 1950s, believes a powerboat
marina could help generate $1 million a year for the struggling
At issue, however, is the best way to
use the paradoxical area, which despite more than 100 years
of intense industrial use is stocked with surprising natural
treasures, including a thriving fish and wildlife population,
the largest complex of wetlands in the Chicago area, and
state-threatened plants and animals, such as the black-crowned
night heron, the least bittern and the lake sturgeon.
"It's one of the most unique regions in the U.S. with so
much ecological viability in the middle of a heavily utilized
industrial area," said James Landing, a geography professor
at the University of Illinois at Chicago who founded a coalition
of regional environmental groups dedicated to protecting
the wetlands. "Certainly during 1900 to 1950, it was one
of the most industrialized areas of the world."
Even so, local community groups have been working for decades
to preserve Lake Calumet, once the heart of at least 25,000
acres of lush wetlands and prairie. The Lake Calumet Vision
Committee recommends reclaiming the last 3,000 acres of
wetlands, opening the barbed-wire-enclosed lake to the public
for canoeing, picnicking and hiking, and restoring native
habitats. In 1998, a National Park Service study, recognizing
the unusual intermingling of industry and wildlife, suggested
the region be designated a National Heritage Area.
To environmentalists, it is appalling that the Port District,
normally charged with overseeing commercial tugs, barges
and freighters and promoting port development, is diversifying
into recreational activities that could affect land that
activists want to preserve.
"This is the critical juncture," said Vic Crivello of the
Southeast Environmental Task Force and the Pullman Environmental
Committee. "The Rust Belt has been hollowed out and now
we're looking at a new economy and new ways to put people
to work. Green development could go so well with Lake Calumet."
The lake is part of a larger area that roughly extends from
the Bishop Ford Freeway on the west to the Indiana Dunes
National Lakeshore on the east and includes Wolf Lake, the
Grand Marsh and the Calumet River system. Over the years,
the area has stirred heated debates over plans ranging from
a third Chicago airport and hotel-retail complex to a gigantic
Plan has been around before
The marina idea has been floating around for more than a
decade. Twice, in the 1980s, the Port District received
the necessary permits, but the project was shelved when
federal funding fell through.
Now, the Port District has applied to the Chicago District
of the Army Corps of Engineers and the Illinois Department
of Natural Resources for permits.
Critics, however, question whether the Port District is
even the right agency to control the public land, especially
now that the steel industry has left and the port's commercial
traffic never lived up to expectations. Formed by the Illinois
General Assembly in the early 1950s, the Port District's
primary responsibility is to develop harbors for maritime
The agency, whose board and chairman are political appointees,
derives its revenues from dockage fees along with warehouse
and grain storage space fees.
But as steel imports fell and barge traffic declined, the
Port District began to diversify into recreational areas,
stretching the boundaries of its original mission. In 1995,
the district opened Harborside International Golf Center
on land just north of the proposed marina. The facility,
built on former garbage dumps and host of this year's SBC
Senior Open, features two 18-hole courses, a 58-acre practice
facility and a golf academy.
"The idea of an international port on Lake Calumet seems
to be past its time," said Joel Brammeier, habitat coordinator
for the Lake Michigan Federation. "It's a shallow lake and
has a limited capability to accept the kinds of ships that
traffic the Great Lakes. The resource should be available
to the community, but right now there is no public access."
The marina would increase public use of the lake, but largely
just to boat owners. In addition to 1,000 slips, the proposed
marina would have a 600-vehicle parking lot, an administration
building, boat repair facilities, indoor and outdoor boat
storage, a ship's store, refueling stations and a boat hoist
and ramp. It would be a six-mile journey from the marina
along the unsightly Calumet River to Lake Michigan, which
raises safety and security issues for the commercial users
of the river, such as the Illinois River Carriers Association.
"We have some concerns about the mixture of commercial and
recreational craft in an already congested area," said Raymond
Seebald, captain of the port for the U.S. Coast Guard, who
believes that the problems can be addressed.
Marina opponents say the project would stir up toxic sediment,
discharge pollutants into the air and water, increase noise
and eventually doom the habitat in Lake Calumet. Environmental
groups also are demanding an environmental impact statement,
a massive, costly document that could take between two and
five years to complete.
Biological studies under way
Though the Port District's relatively brief environmental
assessment states that "it is unlikely that significant
impacts will occur," and that wetlands will not be harmed,
the region has not had comprehensive animal and plant studies
conducted since the 1980s. The Natural Resources Department
is conducting additional biological studies to find threatened
and endangered species, said Steve Davis, the department's
chief of the division of resource review and coordination.
The area where the marina would be built--the man-made north
turning basin--has never been studied, so the project's
possible impact can't be quantified, said the Port District's
"What is not considered is the secondary and tertiary effects
like increased vehicle traffic, fossil fuels, discharges
of petroleum, increased storm water runoff from the parking
lot," said Brammeier of the Lake Michigan Federation. "None
of that is being talked about right now. To say it has `no
impact' is deceptive."
Another common complaint is the Port District's community
relations. Many are reluctant to trust the agency, which
critics say has a history of corruption and shady dealings.
In March, John Serpico, chairman of the port in the 1980s
and a powerful former labor boss with reputed ties to organized
crime, was sentenced to prison for influence peddling and
a kickback scheme.
Public comment on the proposal ended Friday, but the process
is still under review.
"The determination about whether it needs an environmental
impact statement, an environmental assessment or whether
a permit will even be issued has not been made," said Ron
Abrant, of the Army Corps' regulatory branch in Chicago.
"We can certainly address their concern" over communication
problems, said Port District spokesman Peter Cunningham.
"We're in 100 percent support of the goal of preserving
habitat and saving open space."
But, Cunningham added, "We've been looking at this for 20
years and continue to believe it's the highest and best
use of the land, given that it's an active international
shipping port with hundreds of freighters."
Demand from boaters
But will boaters come to a marina in an industrial area
six miles from Lake Michigan? About 500 people are on the
waiting list for one of the nine Chicago Park District harbors,
the Park District said.
In addition to filling a need in the boating community,
the marina also would provide about 250 jobs, Cunningham
"If we were able to build another 1,000 slips, there is
no doubt we would be able to fill them," said Scott Stevenson,
vice president of Westrec Marina, which operates the Chicago
Park District facilities.
Today, aside from the golf course, the only way to see Lake
Calumet up close is via a well-hidden fisherman's path,
walled by seven-foot reeds and prairie flowers. A drowned
powerboat and several car tires litter the calm water, but
Crivello and another neighborhood activist, Marian Byrnes,
gaze at the area and seem to see nothing but potential.
"A great zen master once said to always have a beginner's
mind for every task," Crivello said. "I still have a beginner's
mind for this area."
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