EAST CHICAGO | Provided funding doesn't dry up, the long-stalled cleanup of the infamous Indiana Harbor Ship Canal now is slated to begin in 2009, meaning some 37 years will have passed since it was last dredged of the toxins dumped by the surrounding steel mills, oil refineries and sewage plants.
During those years, the waterway has earned the distinction of becoming the most polluted waterway on the Great Lakes and arguably in the nation, unfit for human habitation and aquatic life though invaluable as a navigational transportation system.
Fishermen are spotted occasionally, but in actuality there currently are no real recreational opportunities on the waterway, according to Jennifer Miller, an environmental engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"This canal is man-made so there is no natural ecosystem," Miller said.
With no natural fishery, the fish in the canal migrate from Lake Michigan. They likely do no survive for any length of time.
A 1990 government study found a 100 percent mortality rate for test animals exposed to the mud from the canal.
Dredging of the canal ceased in 1972 because of the resulting pollution being admitted to Lake Michigan, the region's major source of drinking water. The oily sludge dredged from the bottom of the canal was found to be laced with heavy metals, including iron, lead, zinc, cadmium and chromium; oil and grease; polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons; polychlorinated biphenyls; benzene; and cyanide.
The sources of the toxins include municipal and industrial discharges as well as storm water runoff and combined sewer overflows.
With the supply of drinking water at risk, the canal, the Grand Calumet River and Lake Michigan were designated an "Area of Concern" by the International Joint Commission, the agency created by the United States and Canada to protect the Great Lakes.
The Grand Calumet AOC is the only one of the 43 such designated sites to have all 14 beneficial uses impaired.
The harbor and much of the canal is among three major cleanup projects on the waterways initially welcomed by environmentalists until the questions arose about the breadth of the cleanup projects and the safety of the dredging methods and storage of the toxins.
Currently, all energies are focused on a 275-acre site at Indianapolis Avenue and Riley Road, where more than 4 million cubic yards of oily sludge from the bottom of the canal eventually will be stored in a Confined Disposal Facility. The total project is estimated to take 30 years and $130 million to complete.
Formerly an oil refinery, the CDF site is itself contaminated, just 800 yards from East Chicago Central High School and West Side Middle School and adjacent to the city's 1st District, alarming community activists and environmentalists.
Much of the activity thus far has taken place underground on the still barren site, though a massive dike partially ringing the property is visible from the eastbound Cline Avenue bridge.