Dredging Of Canal Could Stir Up PCBs

First buckets of sediment removed from IHC, East Chicago, Oct. 23, 2012. Credit: Flickr/usacechicago

First buckets of sediment removed from IHC, East Chicago, Oct. 23, 2012. Credit: Flickr/usacechicago

The dredging of a highly contaminated canal long the shore of Lake Michigan, in Indiana, has begun, triggering concerns that the dredging could release harmful chemicals.

The US Army Corps of Engineers is removing large volumes of contaminated sediment, equivalent of about 160 million truckloads, from the Indiana Harbor and Canal to create a deeper canal for ships.

The canal already contributes a significant number of PCBs to East Chicago’s air, but this could skyrocket as the Corps dredges into deep sediment. The indoor air in East Chicago already has PCB levels about three times higher than its outdoor air. A defunct refinery in the 1930s discharged the chemicals, which were banned in the late 1970s, into the canal. They were used as electrical insulators and industrial lubricants and PCBs have been linked to deleterious health effects, like cancer.

According to a 2002 US Geological Survey study, the sediment is among the most contaminated and toxic ever reported. The canal was designed as an area of concern by the EPA. The $180-million project will take 8 to 10 years to complete. The Corps will be removing 1.6 billion cubic yards of sediment several feet below the surface, where PCB concentrations are six times higher than on surface sediments.

The PCBs would add to an already heavy pollution burden faced by East Chicago’s 29,764 residents. Lake County has the highest hospitalization rate for asthma, according to the Indiana Department of Community Health.

The harbor is one of the busiest in the Great Lakes, ferrying 10 to 15 million tons of iron ore, limestone, coke, gypsum, steel, cement, petroleum, and other products each year, generating $894 million annually and supporting 3,665 jobs.

The project will improve water quality, but some worry that it’s the big corporations that will eventually benefit from this project and not the people that live in the immediate area.

[via Scientific American]

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