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Great Lakes Article:

Great Lakes, Grand Cal get boost
Meggen Lindsay
Northwest Indiana Times

The Grand Calumet River's future became a little cleaner this month.

Congress recently approved a plan to fund remediation at the most polluted spots in the Great Lakes and their tributaries. The Great Lakes Legacy Act -- passed by the U.S. House and Senate and now awaiting presidential approval -- authorizes more than $250 million over five years to clean up toxic hot spots known as Areas of Concern.

The act will dole out $50 million per year to clean contaminated sediments and another $4 million annually for public education and research.

Although there is no determination of when and how much federal funding would go to the Grand Calumet, it has been labeled an Area of Concern and is considered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to be one of the nation's most polluted waterways.

Years of industrial discharges from steel, automobile and other manufacturers have taken a heavy toll on the Great Lakes watershed. Contaminants cannot be quickly flushed out because such a small amount of water flows out of the lakes.

And industrial polluters tended to locate not on the lakeshore itself, but in the harbors and mouths, like the Grand Calumet River and its Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal.

The river, which begins in Gary, flows through East Chicago and Hammond and drains into Lake Michigan through the Indiana Harbor and Ship Canal.

"The word legacy has a double meaning here," said Lee Botts, a nationally renowned clean water expert. "We need to leave a clean Great Lakes as a legacy for the future. And these contaminants are our legacy from the past.

"That kind of (industrial dumping) was the old way of doing things. Now there is a focus on doing things right in the first place," she said. "There is no easy solution here. But cleaning these sediments is one of those things that just needs to be done."

The Grand Calumet's pollutants include PCBs, heavy metals, oil and grease. Both the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and U.S. Steel Gary Works have plans under way to dredge contaminated parts of the waterway and canal, but miles of the river are not included.

"Instead of the Grand Calumet being such a negative presence in the region, there's a strong possibility here that it could become a positive aspect," Botts said. "Cleaning those sediments would help the region get away from the legacy of having this kind of pollution, it would help us to erase the industrial damage and the damage to our reputation."

Funding for the Legacy Act has been authorized, but has yet to be approved in next year's federal budget. Eleven of 13 appropriations bills have not been passed, and there is no certainty that Congress will include money for the Legacy Act, say state officials and local environmentalists.

"This really is a big step. And no, it doesn't mean the money for the projects is in the bank, but it does mean that there is now a bank account," said Cameron Davis, executive director of the Chicago-based Lake Michigan Federation, one of the primary lobbyists for the bill.

And not only is this considered a critical bill, there is strong bipartisan support for full appropriation, Davis said.

Should Congress allocate funding for the Legacy Act, Indiana still might not be able to afford cleanup, said Adriane Blaesing, director of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management's northwest regional office in Gary. Any project that receives Legacy Act financing needs to have a 35 percent non-federal dollar match.

"With the way the state budget is right now, that's a huge hurdle," she said.

And one that must be cleared, Davis said.

"There are 10 Areas of Concern in Lake Michigan. Not a single one has been cleaned up and one of the reasons has been a lack of funding. The Legacy Act would help jump-start the process," Davis said.

Staff at his federation have spent more than two years meeting with industrial and environmental groups to draft the legislation.

"We pulled together the guiding principles for what we believed the Great Lakes Legacy Act should accomplish," Davis said. "Those principles are what put us in a room together with the Sierra Club and the Council of Great Lakes Industries."

The Michigan-based council, a nonprofit organization that represents industries with investments in the Great Lakes, is not a typical partner of environmental groups.

"But this was an interesting piece of legislation," said President and Chief Executive Officer George Kuper. "The groups came to some level of consensus and that process turned us into supporters of the legislation."

He said that instead of focusing on what specific companies were to blame for the pollution, the act works simply to get the waters clean.

"There's not an automatic 'let's go out and dredge the stuff up' response in the act. It calls for a rational look at the problem and risk assessment," he said.

"It gets the ball rolling without necessarily finding the culprit first."

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