Water Justice and the Grand Cal

The Grand Calumet River after restoration work

The Grand Calumet River after restoration work


Not far from Chicago’s South Side Altgeld Gardens, where Hazel and Cheryl Johnson helped birth and nurture the critical work of environmental justice, meanders the Grand Calumet River.

The two branches of the Grand Cal come together to flow out through the Indiana Harbor Canal into Lake Michigan. These waterways are home for some of the heaviest industrial legacy pollutants in the country. Neighborhoods that line the river experience some of the toughest blight of any urban area. Some 90 percent of the river’s flow comes from municipal and industrial effluent, cooling and process water, and stormwater overflows.

In fact, so much of the Grand Cal’s East Branch is comprised of wastewater that it typically doesn’t freeze in winter even in the face of bitter Midwestern winters. Although discharges have been reduced, a number of contaminants continue to impair the AOC. In fact, it was the only Great Lakes “Area of Concern” to have all 14 “beneficial use impairments” (benchmarks of ecological stress) under the U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

Fish caught from the Grand Cal are especially problematic because, unlike other AOCs, where contaminated and clean spots exist throughout the site, bottom sediments are contaminated throughout the river. As a result, women of childbearing age, children and low income/subsistence anglers who rely on fish as an inexpensive food source are particularly hard hit from legacy toxins that work their way from river sediments to fish to people.

The good news is that significant progress has been made in helping this waterway reclaim its grand past. Conservation organizations, businesses, local government, state agencies and other federal leaders like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, through its use of the Natural Resources Damage Assessment process, are revitalizing the river.

In other words, what was once thought to be unachievable—reclaiming waterways that run through our urban centers, tribal lands and low income communities—is proving to be just the opposite.

In September 1993, I was fortunate enough to meet Hazel and Cheryl in one of the brick-walled rooms of Altgeld Gardens to hear more about what they were facing. Only a couple of years earlier, in spring 1991, I paddled along the Grand Cal seeing snowy egrets and other signs of a river that had been abused for more than a century, but was pressing desperately—much like many of our overburdened communities—to come back to life.

Cameron Davis is Senior Advisor to EPA the Administrator. He provides counsel on Great Lakes matters, including the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

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