The Environmental Protection Agency plans to dredge 60,000 cubic yards of polluted sediment out of a canal that connects the Grand Calumet River in East Chicago to Lake Michigan. It’s part of a larger project to remove century-old industrial contaminants from the river.
Every year, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant takes local kids out for activities on the river for Grand Calumet River Stewardship Day. Caitie Nigrelli says since the EPA started removing polluted sediment out of the river in 2011, she’s seen wildlife in the area rebound — which has been great for the kids.
“Many of them got to see a bald eagle for their first time soaring over the river, and they got to see a flock of five or six great blue herons take off,” Nigrelli says.
Caitie Nigrelli, an environmental social scientist working for IISG and the U.S. EPA, has been featured in a Christian Science Monitor article about her involvement in the cleanup of the Grand Calumet River in Northwest Indiana.
The reason behind the article? “Industry and environmental interests are often opposed. But in Indiana, a river cleanup requiring both sides to negotiate with each other offers an example for conservation partnerships everywhere.”
Victoria Wallace is interning with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) as a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a B.S. in Integrative Biology and a B.A. in Global Studies.
Laying a foundation
On the first day of my internship, I brought a suitcase to work. I was leaving Champaign-Urbana that afternoon to begin a weeklong journey traveling up and down the western coast of Lake Michigan, from Chicago to Sheboygan to Milwaukee. The main event was the 2018 Great Lakes Areas of Concern Conference, held this year in Sheboygan, which was to be an immersive introduction to the themes and issues addressed during my internship.
The next morning, my new supervisor, Caitie Nigrelli, trotted me around the U.S. EPA office in Chicago, introducing me to her colleagues. It was the beginning of a whirlwind week of introductions, and I had to quickly learn to explain who I was and how my work would be relevant to a world I’d only just entered. A world, I came to learn, that was ruled by acronyms.
It quickly became hard for me to explain my internship to friends and family without clarifying at least three or four acronyms—shorthand used so ubiquitously by a small sphere of professionals that they often forget how foreign the strings of letters are to laypeople. And I was not much different when I arrived at this bustling conference in Sheboygan. Even though I studied biology and had been involved in research on aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes as an undergraduate at the University of the Illinois, I had never heard anyone talk about the Areas of Concern. That morning in the EPA office, I even asked a project manager what “AOC” stands for, unaware of just how green I was.
Learning about Areas of Concern
Over the course of my internship, I have come to see this world with much greater clarity, gaining familiarity not just with the terminology, but with many of the people who undertake these massive projects. The Areas of Concern (AOCs for short) are geographic areas, usually rivers and estuaries, throughout the Great Lakes that have undergone serious environmental degradation. Most of them have suffered historically from industrial and municipal pollution, often leaving behind a legacy of sediments containing toxic concentrations of substances such as PCBs, PAHs and heavy metals.
Because of their industrial histories and gradual degradation, the AOCs are also often some of the most economically depressed areas in the region. The list of AOC communities reads almost like a roll call of rust belt cities: Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Mich.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Erie, Pa.; and Gary, Ind., all lie near or within Areas of Concern. And that’s just six of the 43 AOCs.
New restaurants, shops, condos and boat slips line the Sheboygan River.
One of those 43 is the Sheboygan River AOC, a location specifically chosen for the conference not because of the extent of its blight, but for the significance of its transformation. New development, an active harbor and a slew of recreational opportunities are a testament to the work of the AOC specialists—and to the social value of restoring a degraded resource. This is the final chapter of AOC restoration, when the community regains access to a waterfront it had turned its back on, sees its beauty and its potential, and adopts practices that promote its long-term health.
Wallace helped fourth grade students from East Chicago, Ind. discover the oddities and marvels of nature at the Grand Calumet Stewardship Day at a macroinvertebrate station.
After the crucible that was the AOC conference, I went on to see the Milwaukee Estuary AOC, helped facilitate a stewardship event in the Grand Calumet River AOC, and toured two sites in the infamous Cuyahoga River AOC. I’ve also produced outreach materials for the Muskegon Lake and St. Louis River AOCs. Most importantly, I’ve worked with Caitie to design a research project to better understand the social transformation after the remediation and restoration work is done. It’s being dubbed “revitalization” in the AOC world, and it’s changing how we think about environmental restoration.
If restoring a river can revitalize a community, what does that mean for the future of the Great Lakes? Can the history of exploitation be replaced with a narrative of stewardship, growth, and mutual benefit? I think that there’s a chance it can, but there needs to be a concerted effort. The research I’ve helped develop will push things in that direction by asking the AOC world to confront the question, “Who are we doing all of this for?” And, as a newly-minted environmental scientist, that’s certainly a question I’ll keep in mind as my career develops and matures.
Students from nearby schools are on their way to developing a “sense of place” for the Grand Calumet River after spending several hours at the Seidner Dune and Swale Nature Preserve engaged in learning and stewardship. The site in northwest Indiana is a recently restored natural area along the river and boasts of lupines, bald eagles, great egrets, crayfish and more.
Video by Abigail Bobrow, IISG communication specialist
Sense of place is a social science concept that captures whether a person identifies with or feels an attachment to or dependence on a location, and it is predictive of future environmental stewardship at that site. Caitie Nigrelli, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant environmental social scientist, evaluated the students and found an increase in their sense of place for the natural area after their field trip.
On May 18, the Grand Calumet Stewardship Day, an annual event for the past five years, brought out students from Eggers Middle School and Bishop Noll High School, both in Hammond, Indiana, and 21st Century Charter School in Gary. The students visited four stations where scientists and experts guided them through bird watching, learning fish species, identifying macroinvertebrates, and planting oak trees.
“This is my first time actually walking around, looking at stuff,” said ninth-grade student Demondrick Velez from the 21st Century Charter School. “Is this my first time here? No, I’ve been here, but just not deep into it like this.”
At one point, the Grand Calumet River was considered the most polluted river in the nation. In recent years, with funding from the Great Lakes Legacy Act and local partners, the river is being cleaned up and restored. Altogether, two million cubic yards of sediment have been removed or capped. The work on the East Branch of the river, which is where Seidner Dune and Swale is located, is finished, with 1.1 million cubic yards of sediment remediated and 58 acres of marsh habitat restored.
Even during the river’s worst days, there were pockets of natural wonder.
“The Grand Calumet River is historically known as biologically diverse and it has very unique ecosystem associated with it. The globally rare dune and swale complex, which is next to the river, is globally rare. There is only about 17,000 acres left on the entire planet of this kind of habitat,” said Susan MiHalo, conservation coordinator at The Nature Conservancy, and organizer for this year’s event.
“I love that they’re bringing back the native plants and the native animals and they’re trying to get rid of the pollution. When I get older, even now if I can, I’m going to try to help so I can make it better too,” said Jamarion Evans, an Eggers Middle School student.
“We look forward to coordinating with the teachers to plan additional field trips that can further establish the students’ sense of place for the river,” said Nigrelli.
In addition to Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and The Nature Conservancy, the stewardship day was hosted by the Shirley Heinze-Land Trust, Dunes Learning Center, City of Gary, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Department of Natural Resources,
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Audubon Chicago Region, Wildlife Habitat Council, and Urban Waters.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.
Schoolchildren once again got the chance to explore and learn from the environmentally remarkable Grand Calumet River at the remediated Roxana Marsh in northwest Indiana.
Seventy students from fourth and sixth grades atHarrison,McKinleyandCarrie Gosch elementaryschools worked one-on-one with scientists and experts doing activities like fish identification, macroinvertebrate sampling, bird watching, and tree planting. The mayor of East ChicagoAnthony Copeland even stopped by and helped the students plant a swamp white oak, a tree native to the area.
For a long time, the Grand Cal was referred to as the most polluted river in America. Through Great Lakes Legacy Act funding, almost 2 million cubic yards of river and wetland sediment have been removed or capped and 84 acres of habitat have been restored, including Roxana Marsh.
“It builds pride-in-place,” said Caitie Nigrelli, IISG environmental social scientist who’s been organizing the event every year. “It also helps encourage kids to take part in future stewardship efforts.”
Carrie Gosch Elementary sixth-grader Gerald Lewis was impressed by all the birds and insects and fish he saw.
“I didn’t know we were going to see this much, like eggs on the ground and stuff,” Lewis said. “And we saw some of the fish that was polluted by the oil.”
But his new-found interest in the environment didn’t end there. It made him want to do something about it.
“I felt sad at first when they showed us the fish that was getting hurt and killed,” Lewis said. “That made me want to think, like when I get older, I can help them.”
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension.
The Grand Calumet River in northwest Indiana, abused from centuries of industrial contamination, celebrated a triumphant milestone in October.
Volunteers, environmental organizers, and local, state, and federal politicians gathered to admire the incredible transformation of a river that was once drained of its ecological significance.
IISG Environmental Social Scientist Caitie Nigrelli who led an outreach team to raise awareness about this enormous undertaking soaked it all in.
Caitie Nigrelli, left, and Diana Mally, an environmental
engineer with the U.S. EPA, walk by the river.
“I’m enjoying the beautiful river,” Nigrelli said. “It‘s amazing because just a few years ago I was standing in the same spot, and it was contaminated. Now I look out and it is clean and beautiful.”
Nigrelli serves as a liaison between the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and community stakeholders to promote awareness of the Grand Cal remediation through public meetings, tours, and events with school children.
The Grand Calumet was at rock bottom when the International Joint Commission designated it as an Area of Concern in 1987. Since then $159 million in combined state and U.S. EPA funds through the Great Lakes Legacy Act have thus far provided the means to clean it up.
Because of the extent of the work, the Grand Cal’s 13-mile system was divided into eight separate projects, with more milestones to come. This most recent event marked the completion of a 2-mile section from Kennedy Avenue to Cline Avenue at a cost of $82 million. The money went toward remediating 1.1 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment, restoring 58 acres of marsh habitat, and installing more than 170,000 plants.
This effort not only remediated sediment, but also removed invasive species like Phragmites that had overrun dune and swale habitat, crowding out native plants.
The federal funding, while generous, comes with a significant stipulation: Local partners must match at least 35 percent of the cost of remediation. The Indiana Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Management footed the bill with money from a Natural Resource Damage Assessment involving eight industries.
Kris Krouse, Shirley Heinze Land Trust executive director, said, “From our perspective as an organization, it is probably one of the most spectacular and monumental achievements when it comes to land conservation.”
Octogenarian Lee Botts, a prominent Great Lakes environmental activist since the 1960s, is making a film about the changes the south end of Lake Michigan is experiencing. She remembers questioning that any kind of restoration was ever going to happen.
“Amazing progress is being made by partnerships among all kinds of interests—some of whom in the past were enemies and opposed the conservation,” Botts said. “Now it’s a shared goal of all these interests. We’re making progress.”
Remediation on the next section starts next week—going west, it includes the city of Hammond and will go up to the Illinois border.
This has been a good year for Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. Working with our many partners, big projects reached their culmination, in some cases providing researchers and decision makers new ways to access data. And the spotlight was turned on Lake Michigan for research and education. Here are10 important stories from 2015.
The year started with big research news that southern Lake Michigan has high concentrations of plastic microfibers, which are likely from clothing that sheds in the wash. This news was picked up by media outlets around the world, including the Associated Press, The New York Times, The Guardian, and the Chicago Tribune.
2015 saw the release of the Illinois Nutrient Loss Reduction Strategy, which laid out a plan to reduce the flow of nutrients down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico. This strategy was developed with input from a range of stakeholders, including government agencies and agricultural producers.
Be a Hero is now the primary invasive species awareness campaign in Illinois. Recreational water users have heard this message, but now the campaign provides easy tips to help water gardeners, teachers, and aquarium hobbyists curb the spread of aquatic invaders. Plus, Be a Hero provides guidance to hunters, campers, and hikers to prevent the spread of species that threaten habitat on land.
The Grand Calumet River in Indiana just keeps getting better. Another section of this long polluted waterway has been cleaned up through Great Lakes Legacy Act funding and that of many local and state partners. Remediation of the Kennedy to Cline Avenues section led to the removal of 1.1 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment.
Twice this year, it was Lake Michigan’s turn for ongoing projects that rotate yearly around the Great Lakes. First, the Lake Michigan Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI) brought together agencies and scientists to study the nearshore environment, which ultimately will help inform management decisions. CSMI is part of a larger binational effort to advance Great Lakes monitoring and research.
Second, this was the year for the Shipboard Science Workshop on Lake Michigan, in which 15 teachers spent a week aboard the U.S. EPA R/V Lake Guardian working with researchers and learning about Great Lakes science.
IISG has developed new tools to help scientists enhance their research and help decision makers, and others make informed choices. Great Lakes Monitoring is a web application that provides the means for environmental data from across the Great Lakes region to be just a click away.
For communities looking to set water prices smartly, the Northeast Illinois Water and Wastewater Rates Dashboard allows them to compare rates with communities in the region that have similar characteristics. Setting the right price for water is the first step in managing water supplies sustainably.
In our latest issue of The Helm, we report on a tool under development for critical facilities in Cook County to reduce flooding impacts. Through answering a series of questions, facilities managers can assess how the building might be vulnerable to flood damage, and how this risk can be addressed.
Finally, IISG installed a second buoy in the waters of Lake Michigan. This one is off the shores of Wilmette, Illinois, joining the first one in the Indiana waters near Michigan City. These buoys provide key information to the National Weather Service, researchers, boaters, anglers, and beach goers alike.
As we look forward to 2016, we thank partners, stakeholders, and many others that we worked with and supported to achieve noteworthy goals.
Environmental clean-ups can revitalize a waterway and nearby neighborhoods, but are they always good for everyone in a community? Are there people left behind, or worse, negatively impacted by the process or the results?
Bethany Cutts and Andrew Greenlee (pictured here left, with a Milwaukee resident), both University of Illinois researchers, are investigating these questions in conjunction with Great Lakes Legacy Act clean ups in Milwaukee’s Lincoln Park and the Grand Calumet River in northwest Indiana. In Milwaukee, they have been interviewing residents, as well as representatives from businesses and grassroots organizations that have a stake in river management activities to learn how the remediation experience is playing out for more vulnerable members of the community.
Social vulnerability is a measure that is typically used when a community goes through turbulent change, which is mostly disasters. Vulnerable populations are defined by census categories—low income, minorities, single mothers, the elderly, for example.
“Socially vulnerable populations generally have a lack of capacity to recover from these setbacks or do not have a voice during the community decision process,” said Cutts. The interviews provide an opportunity to inform how vulnerable populations are characterized and it can help target outreach during remediation projects.
According to El Lower, a Master’s student working on this project, one preliminary finding in these taped interviews is that generally, residents tend to think about different river restoration projects together. They don’t separate them in terms of who is funding the work or the different project goals.
In the Milwaukee area, this means that the Great Lakes Legacy Act project, which has led to the removal of many cubic yards of contaminated sediment, may become viewed by residents as connected to a controversial plan to remove the Estabrook Dam upstream.
Caitie Nigrelli, IISG social scientist, affirmed that at public meetings for the Lincoln Park sediment remediation project, discussions were overtly steered away from the contentious dam.
Through listening to residents and their strong opinions on the dam, the research team has come to have some advice for environmental organizations and agencies involved in other nearby restoration projects. “The conflict the dam generates may help outreach coordinators more successfully address residents’ questions and concerns regarding the Milwaukee River as a whole,” said Cutts.
Also, the dam project provides a ripe opportunity to hear from vulnerable populations. For her Master’s project, student Kaitlyn Hornik (pictured on right with El Lower) will create a video from interviews and focus groups to share the opinions of those who are not typically heard, which will be shown at a community meeting. “Public forums can be intimidating. The video can open people’s eyes to different points of view,” she explained. “It helps create a level playing field.”
Next, the researchers will turn their sights to northwest Indiana where the Grand Calumet River has been undergoing remediation for several years to learn how this is impacting residents.
“We need to think about socially vulnerable groups and if possible include them in the process,” said Cutts. “Analyzing how change can occur is important. The remediation process can be opportunity to have more compassion regarding how this process impacts people.”