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Great Lakes Article:

Lake Calumet project making new waves
Critics fear impact of marina project

By Julie Deardorff
Chicago Tribune
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 port.

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 food center.

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 use.

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 environmental assessment.

"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 said.

"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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