Warning, reads the sign on the Indianapolis Boulevard bridge 19 miles southeast of the Loop in East Chicago, Indiana. UNSAFE WATERS. YOU SHOULD NOT SWIM IN THESE WATERS. YOU SHOULD NOT EAT FISH FROM THESE WATERS. The channel under the bridge is the Lake George branch of the Indiana Harbor Canal, which slowly empties into Lake Michigan. It’s still OK to toss a rock into the water, and if you do, bubbles swirl up, pop, and leave a rainbow slick.

The mud at the bottom of the canal may be the biggest single source of pollution in southern Lake Michigan–a black, sandy, pungent pudding that’s 5 percent oil and grease. It also contains mercury, lead, arsenic, zinc, chromium, benzene, naphthalene, and PCBs–all “legacy pollutants” from the steel mills, oil refineries, and city sewage plants that spent most of the 20th century spewing their wastes with abandon.

Over the past few decades the polluters have cleaned up their acts somewhat or gone out of business, but the black pudding still oozes toxics into the water, the air, and the food web. If you’re a kid–or if you ever plan to have a kid–you should never eat any brook trout, brown trout, lake trout, carp, channel catfish, chinook salmon, or coho salmon from Lake Michigan. And nobody should ever eat anything from the canal.

The biggest reason for such warnings is the presence of PCBs, which start having biological effects at 50 parts per billion parts of water. The canal mud contains up to 100 times that much. According to a 1996 U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service report, many of the carp and goldfish in the canal had “eroded fins, swollen eyes, deformed lower jaws, and evidence of internal hemorrhaging.” More problems would no doubt be found, the report added, if more fish could live there.

Back in 1969 researchers put small water-dwelling midges in a laboratory tank with some of the canal sediment. The little bugs tried to stay above the mud, but 70 percent of them died within a day and 90 percent were dead within two. If the experiment seems cruel, bear in mind that for decades this stuff has been flowing from the canal into the lake in giant belches after every big rainstorm.

Small wonder the Sierra Club, Lake Michigan Federation, Save the Dunes Council, and many well-known environmentalists want the sediment out of the canal, and the sooner the better. “The residents of East Chicago as well as around Lake Michigan will gain both health and economic benefits from the removal of the 20-foot layer of contaminated sediments,” says Lee Botts, a founder of the Lake Michigan Federation and the Indiana Dunes Environmental Learning Center. “Their grandchildren will benefit even more.”

The Chicago district of the Army Corps of Engineers and Region 5 of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have a plan to dredge up much of the canal mud and store it in a “confined disposal facility,” or CDF, on an oil-soaked weed patch just northwest of the Indianapolis Boulevard bridge. Over 30 years the CDF will grow into a 28-foot-tall truncated pyramid covering 134 acres of land. The corps expects to spend $125 million to build the CDF and about the same amount to dredge almost five million cubic yards from the canal. Preparatory work has already begun, and dredging is scheduled to start in 2008.

But not everyone’s cheering. A loosely organized, underfinanced, tenacious group of local opponents has been dogging the corps and EPA for years, led by veteran activists Colleen Aguirre and Betty Balanoff. They claim that the project will simply trade one kind of pollution for another, that the corps and EPA haven’t done all they could to keep East Chicagoans safe in the process, and that the two agencies have rarely given residents straight answers. In their eyes, only environmental racism can explain the agencies’ decision to place the CDF half a mile from East Chicago Central High School and West Side Junior High School, whose students are 96 percent black and Hispanic.

They’re quick to point out something no one on the other side denies: the purpose of this project isn’t to clean up the canal. Any cleanup that happens will be a side effect. Congress has authorized the corps only to improve navigation, making it easier and therefore cheaper for big lake-going boats to deliver iron ore to the two steel mills on the canal. The planned dredging won’t stop canal mud from flowing into Lake Michigan, though it’s expected to cut the flow at least in half.

The corps and EPA put environmental cleanup front and center when touting the benefits of the project. But they back off when asked to consider doing more than what’s necessary to improve navigation. How about dredging several feet deeper than the ore boats need, to ensure that no more pollution washes into the lake, as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service suggested in 1996? Too expensive. The corps’ project manager, Bill White, says he’d be accused of wasting taxpayers’ dollars. The project’s supporters add that you can’t expect to clean up a century of pollution all at once and that more programs, perhaps under the Great Lakes Legacy Act, will eventually come along to help finish the job.

The CDF will create environmental problems of its own, as it won’t be truly contained until the project ends and it can be capped. For 30 years it will stand open to the elements, and the drying mud will be picked up by the wind. Preliminary worst-case estimates published by the corps and EPA in their January 1999 “Comprehensive Management Plan” suggest that once the dredging and dumping begin, dust pollution may increase by 50 percent. That dust may be mixed with three times more PCBs than the dust from the existing site, four times more benzene, five times more toluene, five times more chromium, and ten times more arsenic.

Project supporters concede many of these points but insist that it’s still the least bad alternative. They say the long-term benefits to Lake Michigan will exceed any short-term increases in air pollution.

Over the years the Indiana Harbor Canal dispute has confused casual observers, pitted federal agencies against each other, helped to unseat the East Chicago Democratic machine, and split the area’s environmental activists. One thing’s for sure: dredging or no dredging, CDF or no CDF, East Chicago will be paying the environmental price for the 20th century’s gasoline and steel habits for a long time to come.

God neglected to create a good harbor on the Indiana shore of Lake Michigan, so when Illinois oil refineries and steel mills began to cross the state line a century ago they had to make their own. While they were at it, they decided to dig a canal that would link Lake Michigan with the Grand Calumet River to the south and with Lake George to the west.

Digging the canal wasn’t too challenging–the land there is flat and free of rocks–but somehow it never was finished. Today it’s shaped like a lopsided capital Y lying on its side. From Lake Michigan it runs about a mile and a half through the steel mills’ lake fill, passes the original Lake Michigan shoreline, and runs another mile and a half southwest. At that point it forks into two branches. One runs west toward Lake George and dead-ends a half mile short of the lake; the other runs south two miles and connects to the Grand Calumet River.

At first the canal was a success. It allowed industries that used the Great Lakes to move bulk commodities cheaply and easily. In 1913 it enabled Inland Steel to take in more than a million tons of ore and Standard Oil to ship more than 80 million gallons of oil. In 1916 upstart oilman Harry Sinclair built a new refinery on the Lake George branch just west of Indianapolis Boulevard, connected it to his oil fields in Oklahoma with an eight-inch-diameter pipeline, and got rich. A company history says Sinclair’s enterprise made $9 million in profits on $17 million in sales in its first 14 months.

Over the years the canal conveyed not just oil and iron ore but money from taxpayers’ pockets to the industries doing business along it. Early on much of its maintenance became the responsibility of the Army Corps of Engineers. Then the industries–and the cities of Gary and East Chicago–raised the cost of that maintenance by sending some of their waste into the canal. Half garbage can, half highway, the slow-flowing canal gradually filled with a mixture of human and industrial waste.

Beginning in 1911 the corps dredged 100,000 cubic yards of gunk every year from the canal. Today the channel is supposed to be kept 22 to 29 feet deep, depending on the location. Rumor has it–there don’t seem to be any records–that the harbor and canal were dredged deeper during World War II, which is why in some places there’s contaminated sediment below the navigation depth.

All this dredged mud had to go somewhere. From 1924 to ’66 it was barged out to a 90-square-mile area in Lake Michigan 10 to 20 miles east of Chicago, where it was dumped in about 70 feet of water.

But plenty of toxic mud was left behind. In 1949 the canal contained so much oil that one refinery called it a “dangerous fire hazard.” In 1967 not even pollution-tolerant sludge worms could live on the bottom. That same year an oil spill from the canal reached Chicago’s water-intake crib off 68th Street.

Deep-lake “disposal” seemed safe enough until the late 60s, when the corps and the EPA’s predecessor found that bottom-dwelling organisms in the dumping zone were suffering “transient” effects. No one proved that this damage would last or would harm fish or wildlife or people, but the possibility was obvious. In 1972 the EPA banned open-lake dumping.

It would have been a good time for Congress to make one agency responsible for both stopping new pollution from flowing into the canal and dealing with the stuff that was already there. Congress didn’t, though since then a combination of deindustrialization and aggressive EPA enforcement have lessened the incoming pollution considerably.

It also would have been a good time for Congress to give the corps an environmental cleanup assignment in addition to its long-standing navigation assignment. Congress didn’t do that either, and the idea has rarely been suggested since. The corps simply continued doing its navigation job.

In 1975 the corps began studying the possibility of dumping dredged mud at the northeast corner of Inland Steel’s lake fill. In 1978 the EPA declined to approve that plan, saying pollution would leak right back into the lake unless the corps built a “separate impermeable containment facility.”

The corps went back to the drawing board and came up with 16 possible locations for a CDF–12 on land and 4 in the lake. It finally decided to build a 40-acre triangular island just off East Chicago’s Jeorse Park, in a sheltered area of Lake Michigan. Quickly dubbed Toxic Island, the site was opposed by a united front of environmentalists, and even the EPA suggested that a CDF there might leak and pollute Lake Michigan. In March 1986, after eight years of study, the corps dropped the proposal. Toxic Island joined the long list of noxious land uses that northwest Indiana activists have fought off over the years, among them a nuclear power plant, a medical-waste incinerator, and a napalm reprocessing plant.

Until around 1980 mud kept piling up at the bottom of the canal, making it shallower each year. Since then the canal has reached a kind of equilibrium–it’s so shallow that no more sediment is deposited than flows into the lake.

According to the corps, the shallowness of the canal prevents shippers from fully loading their boats, which costs them between $11 million and $18 million a year. The partly loaded boats still plow through the mud, stirring it up and releasing toxic chemicals into the water and ultimately the lake. (Incidentally, steel employment has crashed, but canal use hasn’t; the canal handled 15 million tons of cargo in 1990, and 13.6 million in 2001, so the project can still be justified on navigation grounds alone.)

After the Toxic Island fiasco, the corps went back to the drawing board again, this time working with the EPA. Together they considered seven sites and 18 treatment options. They didn’t get far with the treatment options. Treating contaminated sediment sounds like a good idea: as one attorney who’s knowledgeable about the canal quips, “Everyone would like to have a black box that you pour sediments in one end and get clean water and sunlight out the other.” But no treatment has been discovered that can cope with the unholy combination of heavy metals and oily organic wastes in the canal mud. Moreover, treating the mud would create toxic residues that would have to be put in a CDF anyway, and according to the corps, the treatments that do exist cost about ten times as much as stashing the unprocessed contaminated mud.

Eventually the two agencies chose a dump site that hadn’t been entered in the previous competitions–the 168-acre home of Harry Sinclair’s 1916 refinery. In 1976 the antiquated plant had passed from Sinclair’s successor firm to Energy Cooperative Inc., but within five years ECI was bankrupt. The buildings and aboveground equipment were razed and hauled away, and clean soil was trucked in and spread over the surface.

But in northwest Indiana nothing’s over even when it’s over. In December 1989 the city of East Chicago took over the ECI property for back taxes, only to find that it had acquired a hot potato. The site hadn’t been properly cleaned up and was in violation of the federal Resource Conservation and Recovery Act. Pipes full of petroleum products remained belowground, and the ground itself resembled an oil-soaked sponge. In 1991 soil samples from 16 feet underground exuded “a strong petroleum odor.” The year before, the Coast Guard had found oil flowing from the site into the Lake George branch of the canal, requiring emergency corrective action. The ECI site still has surprises left in it: in November 2003 a contractor preparing it for the CDF came across two pipes that traverse the property more than 20 feet below the surface. Nobody knows to whom they belong or what’s in them; the current plan is to work around them.

In 1994 the city of East Chicago unloaded the ECI property on a new agency called the East Chicago Waterway Management District. Established by the Indiana legislature, the district has no assets and no meaningful taxing powers. Legally it’s a creature of the state, though East Chicago’s mayor appoints four of its seven board members. Basically, it was set up to be the owner of the property, which gives it access to state-administered cleanup funds, and to serve as the local partner without which the corps couldn’t conduct its project.

The district’s authority is so limited it’s not likely to cause trouble by taking independent action. Last year some members of its board criticized the corps’ decision to use a mechanical dredge. They thought a hydraulic dredge might pollute less. Project manager Bill White said he could follow their wishes–provided the board came up with an extra $11 million. Everybody in the room knew perfectly well that the board had no such sum and no way of getting it. The existing cleanup funds will barely pay the local share of the project in its current form.

On March 20, 1996, the corps and EPA held a public hearing on their environmental impact statement on the dredging project and the ECI site. The agencies’ inability to get their message across to the public has become legendary over the years, and this event was no exception. “We are only accepting comments,” the EPA’s Robert Tolpa told the audience. “We will not be responding to any questions.”

Experts were available to answer questions individually in the next room, but that was small consolation to Colleen Aguirre. “I don’t want to wait till it’s all done and over with,” she told Tolpa. “I want to know, is there going to be a health-risk assessment? Are the residents going to have a part in that? You are saying we can’t ask questions, strictly for comment. It’s going to be too late if we have to wait for the final report.”

“Ma’am, this is the fifth meeting we have [had] here,” Tolpa responded.

“I know,” said Aguirre. “I’ve been to all of them and never gotten a direct answer.” (Aguirre, who was profiled in Michael Brown’s 1987 book The Toxic Cloud: The Poisoning of America’s Air, was still asking inconvenient questions about the agency’s health-risk assessment at a June 2004 EPA meeting, though she no longer lived in town.)

A local Little League official told Tolpa, “I feel that you should not build this containment this close to a high school. Even if it’s one child that gets cancer over your 30-year span on the studies that you have done, that’s still too many.” A 35-year resident of East Chicago declared himself “totally against this project, because I have two children. My son and I golf at McArthur Golf Course, and you can stand on the fifth tee and you are less than 100 yards from the canal. . . . On a day like today, with 40-mile-per-hour winds coming out of the north, that dust [from the CDF] has to go somewhere.”

Regional and national environmental groups supported the project, but they thought it could be done better. The Lake Michigan Federation, Save the Dunes Council, Grand Calumet Task Force, and Sierra Club Great Lakes office organized a 15-member “technical advisory committee” that included academics from the University of Illinois, Chicago State, DePaul, and the University of Wisconsin. Their detailed recommendations were reasonable and constructive–and, as it turned out, futile.

They pointed out that the federal agencies couldn’t answer a basic question: how much mud is going into the lake? Depending on whom you ask and how they calculate, it’s somewhere between 24,000 and 200,000 cubic yards a year. The high figure is the corps’ high estimate, based on measurements taken back in the 1980s and earlier, before pollution-control improvements; the low end is the technical advisory committee’s calculation, based on more recent information. Even using the lower figure, the Indiana Harbor Canal is dumping into Lake Michigan the equivalent of almost three cubic yards of toxic mud every hour of every day. The corps responded by saying it was looking into the matter, but the committee never got an answer, nor has one been provided since.

They pointed out that not nearly enough samples of sediment had been analyzed to determine the overall chemical composition and what treatment was possible. The corps replied that it didn’t need to know; the analysis that had been done was “clearly sufficient for the design of a navigational dredging project. The project is not a remediation effort.”

They urged that a citizens’ advisory group be formed and be closely involved at every stage of the project. No such group was ever created, though in 2003–after most project decisions had already been made–the EPA did fund a university-based group that has begun offering technical information to concerned locals. Even this well-credentialed group has had trouble getting timely information from the corps.

They suggested that the project, like many other solid-waste projects, include an agreement to compensate the local community for any adverse impacts. Not applicable, said the corps.

They questioned whether the Waterway Management District had either the expertise or the money to oversee the project properly, especially since the agencies’ environmental impact statement didn’t address “the fundamental question of who has responsibility for unfunded liabilities and third party claims” if anything should go terribly wrong. The question remains unaddressed.

The advisory committee succeeded in improving the project in one way. The corps agreed to publicly review the technical dredging and disposal literature at least every five years and “use all reasonable efforts” to take advantage of any advances. The corps reportedly accepted this provision only after local U.S. representative Peter Visclosky–the ranking member of the energy and water development subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee–twisted arms at the highest level.

Bowden Quinn, the former executive director of the Grand Calumet Task Force, still thinks the ECI site is the best available solution, but he has harsh words for how the EPA and the corps have handled community relations. “They pretended there was an effort to communicate with the community, but there wasn’t,” he says. “Their current proposal is infinitesimally different. They hardly communicated anything.”

Local residents had no forum for regular input, so they kept attending the 10 AM monthly meetings of the Waterway Management District board. A scattering of mostly white locals asked questions the board wasn’t well equipped to deal with. Every three months or so the board met in the evening instead; at those meetings African-American and Latino residents also showed up and posed additional questions to the board and indirectly to the corps, EPA, and U.S. Congress. The participation of people who clearly couldn’t come during the day didn’t inspire the board to change its meeting schedule, nor did it inspire the sponsoring agencies to offer an evening forum–or any other forum for regular citizen input.

Four decades after the dispute started it’s still going strong, because it’s hard for anyone to see the situation as it really is. The project’s opponents tend to see it as one more instance in which other people’s problems are being foisted on them–even though the sludge at the bottom of the canal is polluting their neighborhood, and even though that sludge came from East Chicago, not California. Project supporters tend to see it as one more case in which numskull NIMBYs are concerned only with their own backyards–even though the agencies promoting the project don’t see the problem with adding a little more pollution to those backyards.

Supporters say that leaving the mud in the canal is unacceptable and point out that in three decades nobody’s come up with a better place to put the mud than the ECI site. It’s located right on the canal, making transportation relatively quick and easy and minimizing the dredged sediments’ exposure to air. It’s in the same town where most of the sediment originated and is currently located. The CDF will contain not only the canal mud but the Sinclair and ECI refinery wastes. And it’s the only proposed site that has a local sponsor, the Waterway Management District.

All well and good, the opponents reply–for those who can go home to Munster or Michigan City or Chicago after the meetings are over. The opponents take offense at a passage in an appendix to the corps’ 1999 Comprehensive Management Plan, which says in effect, why put the CDF in a clean area when you have ruined land so handy? “Building the CDF at the ECI site,” it notes, “keeps the Indiana Harbor sediment in an industrial area and will not consume one of the few remaining green sites [in northwest Indiana].” Would the authors of this passage refer to the site as “industrial,” the opponents wonder, if their own children and grandchildren were attending school within 800 yards of it?

In another appendix the EPA says much the same thing about air pollution. The agency concluded that at worst the operation might cause 2.3 cancers per million people breathing the air nearby for 30 years. That number has been criticized, and a new one is on order, but the final number will still be tiny compared to the cancer risk of simply breathing East Chicago’s air as it is for 30 years–310 in a million, according to some studies. (The lifetime risk in southwest and southeast Chicago is about 200 in a million, according to the EPA.) Their point is that the CDF adds little to an already bad situation. “CDF emissions are small,” says the EPA, “less than one percent” of the pollution found in 1989 and ’93 studies of comparable south Chicago neighborhoods.

The corps and EPA conclude that a little more pollution can’t hurt when things are already this bad. But a resident, or any reasonable person, might well conclude something very different–that simple fairness demands a “no net increase of pollution” rule for East Chicago–if a new CDF or industry will add to the existing pollution, then the EPA should at least bring about a matching decrease someplace in the area.

Project supporters long ago decided that the benefits of cleaning up Lake Michigan outweigh what they call the “unavoidable adverse impacts caused by the dredging.” Though it’s difficult to weigh water pollution against air pollution, they’re probably right. Yet this bald statement obscures the uncomfortable truth about who gets what. The benefits of cleanup will accrue to everyone around Lake Michigan, while the “unavoidable adverse impacts,” no matter how small, will be concentrated in one community, where the residents are over 90 percent nonwhite.

“To date there have been no real changes from the corps’ original plan,” says Betty Balanoff. “Only great community pressure persuaded them to research the project more thoroughly. Requests for any improvements are met with the excuse there is not enough money. There is no money to insure the project, to indemnify the community for property losses or for additional health problems, even though medical insurance here is at a minimum. . . . We understand that the law mandates a cleanup of the ECI site and the dredging of the canal. But if there is not enough money to do it safely, more money must be found. . . . The community cannot be expected to pay the difference in human life and damaged children.”

On August 7, 2000, the East Chicago Waterway Management District took a legally irreversible step by signing a “project cooperation agreement” with the corps. The opponents continued making their case, and the corps and EPA kept stumbling. In 2002 a corps public-relations contractor suggested that local opponents might pipe down if the agency promised to put a baseball or soccer field on top of the completed CDF, since local Latinos couldn’t afford the equipment for golf or boating. “Ludicrous . . . an insult” was the response from East Chicago resident Jose Bustos in the Gary Post-Tribune.

Northwest Indiana’s notoriously corrupt politics only added to the tangle. Incumbent mayor and project supporter Robert Pastrick barely defeated project opponent George Pabey in the May 6, 2003, East Chicago Democratic mayoral primary. Pabey was able to prove massive vote buying and fraudulent conduct in that election and won handily in a court-ordered revote this October. As mayor, Pabey will eventually appoint a majority of the Waterway Management District board, but it’s not clear whether he’ll be able to find the legal authority to move the CDF elsewhere or whether he can find the money to make the existing project safer for residents.

This story doesn’t have a happy ending. No one’s willing to spend the money it would cost to clean up the canal properly. The environmentalist supporters are in the uncomfortable position of backing a project that they’ve subjected to some damning criticism and that they know is only a partial measure. They’ve also been allies of Pastrick’s corrupt administration; on November 15 Edwardo Maldonado, then city controller and chairman of the Waterway Management District board, was convicted of diverting $800,000 to $1.5 million in public money to building sidewalks for voters who agreed to support Pastrick.

Supporters can’t even make the argument that the project will restore a natural area that people will be able to enjoy again. The canal was artificial from the start. Nobody has fond memories of fishing or swimming or boating in it. No one saw fit to observe its centennial in 2003.

The project’s opponents are in the uncomfortable position of having no credible alternative to suggest. They once distributed a flyer urging that the sediment “be relocated to an unpopulated area.” Occasionally they’ll invoke the pop-environmental notion that we shouldn’t do anything until we know for certain that it’s safe–the precautionary principle. But the precautionary principle is of no help when the status quo is dangerous: dredging may not be safe, but doing nothing and leaving the gunk in the canal isn’t safe either.

When doing nothing is just another way of continuing to pollute, there’s no substitute for weighing all the evidence and choosing the least evil alternative available. And despite their blundering, that is what the corps and EPA have tried to do. But they haven’t thought through the implications of adding pollution to an already highly polluted area, and they’ve responded only reluctantly to residents’ requests to be heard and to be given explanations and compensation. The agencies’ mistakes may not stop this project, but they may make it harder to sell the next one. It’s not enough to be right if you can’t do right as well.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Slug Signorino; photos/Bruce Powell.