Environment: Waukegan's Toxic Waits | Essay | Chicago Reader

Environment: Waukegan's Toxic Waits 

The endless battle over PCBs in Waukegan Harbor is poisoning the city's plans to become the "Coho Coast."

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Sometime, the folks in Waukegan hope, the day will come when they won't have to answer questions for articles like this one.

Some big plans are being made in Waukegan, plans to put a new economic face on northern Lake County, plans to redevelop the lakefront and unlock the tourist potential of the "Coho Coast." But there's this nasty little problem--actually billions of little problems, resting at the bottom of Waukegan's prized Lake Michigan harbor: PCBs.

Those PCBs may constitute a serious health problem. They have certainly created legal, political, and public policy problems. All that adds up to a major image problem, and in the redevelopment game, image is everything.

In the 1880s, the city fathers of Waukegan, the seat of Lake County, convinced Congress to fund the creation of Waukegan Harbor as a frankly commercial enterprise. It turned out to be a fine investment. About 40 miles up the lakeshore from downtown Chicago, Waukegan became the only deep-water port between here and Milwaukee; as industry settled there, a town of fewer than 10,000 souls grew to a bustling manufacturing city of better than 50,000.

The forerunner (several mergers ago) of the Outboard Marine Corporation was one of those manufacturers, and by the 1960s it dominated the booming pleasure-boating industry in this country, employing up to 5,000 people at two plants on the harbor.

In due course, Waukegan became a charter member of the Rust Belt: plants began closing and moving south and west, taking jobs with them. OMC is a case in point; though the company maintains its corporate headquarters and some manufacturing operations next to the harbor, it has in the past decade moved 3,000 jobs to plants in the south, seeking cheaper labor.

"Reality in Waukegan and its neighboring industrial cities [North Chicago, Deerfield, Libertyville] is that 20,000 jobs in and related to heavy industry have been lost in recent years," says Warren Wood, a senior planner with the Lake County Department of Planning, Zoning, and Environmental Quality.

To bring some of those jobs back, people like Wood and Don Freeborn, director of the Waukegan Port District, are trying to recast the city's economic mold.

"I think there is a great desire here to see Waukegan experience a rebirth," Wood says, "to create a new image and a new reality."

The cornerstone of that new reality, as Wood sees it, will be tourism drawn by the lakefront. Promoting that goal, he says, will require expansion of the harbor and other planned infrastructure projects, for example a lakefront parkway and a "beltway" around Waukegan and North Chicago.

Expansion of the harbor is well under way, under Don Freeborn's stewardship. In the past four years, the number of pleasure-boat slips in the harbor has been increased from about 200 to 1,046. Every one of those is already filled for the coming summer, and the waiting list is 800 names long. The demand represented by that waiting list will be met, Freeborn and Wood hope, by a proposed Harbor Authority project to build two new marinas south of the new harbor, bringing the total to 3,400 slips. "When the South Marina is built, we will be the largest marina on the west side of the lake," Freeborn noted.

Also in the works, according to Freeborn, is a retail-office-restaurant development on the shore of the new harbor, which Wood calls an example of just the sort of "public-private partnership" needed to revitalize downtown Waukegan. Other projects are in progress or planned: the Commercial Club of Chicago estimated last spring that more than $500 million in private and public funds are being pumped into the area.

Wood is a man who has truly found his calling; he fairly bursts with ideas for Waukegan's future. Wind him up, and he'll start talking about a "Historic Main Street" in downtown Waukegan, or a network of walkways and bike paths and "linear botanical gardens" in the town's ravines. He'll also make sure you recall that those ravines were immortalized in the works of Ray Bradbury.

Perhaps Wood's most successful brainstorm to date has been the "Lake Michigan Circle Tour," an updating of Daniel Burnham's 1909 proposal for a trail around the rim of the lake. You may have spotted the Circle Tour signs on Sheridan Road in Evanston, or along the dunes highways in Indiana.

The tour consists of a marked route for a drive around the lake, with each of four states--Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin--contributing promotion and providing a guidebook for its portion of the route. The tour, needless to say, goes right through Waukegan.

"Already I've heard stories about people coming up from Missouri and Iowa to take the tour," Wood beams.

Wood is also pushing to get Lake County municipalities to participate in the Lake Michigan Corridor Council. The council, one of many established under a state program, is a sort of local tourism and promotion agency, with municipalities contributing funds that are matched by the state.

Of course, none of the many reporters who have visited Waukegan over the last decade have come to ask about the Lake Michigan Corridor Council, or the Circle Tour, or the Coho Coast. What brings the media to Waukegan is the PCB problem.

"If there is a 'the problem' to be solved," Wood says with a sigh, "it's an image problem: the Rust Belt. The PCBs are both a reality and a symbol, and part of that image problem."

PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, first created in Germany in 1881, were manufactured by Monsanto between 1929 and 1977. They are, as DePaul chemistry professor Tom Murphy explains, "very useful compounds for industry because they are thermally stable, don't conduct electricity, and can store electrical charges. In electrical capacitors in motors, they're safer than, say, mineral oil, because they're not a fire hazard."

At OMC they were used as hydraulic fluids, Murphy says, and hydraulic systems are highly susceptible to leaks. Evidently the stuff simply leaked onto the plant floor, and OMC "just seemed to hose down the building at night," Murphy says--"into the drains, then the pipes, then the harbor . . ."

This was before the dangers of PCBs had been established. Besides, as Murphy puts it, "This was the 50s and 60s: out of sight, out of mind. It's a big lake out there, right?"

In 1966, a Swedish chemist discovered PCBs in the environment--including his own family's hair--while monitoring for DDT, a dangerous pesticide similar to PCBs. In 1968, more than 1,000 people in Kitakyushu, Japan, came down with skin lesions, swollen limbs, abdominal cramps, and other problems; mothers in the area gave birth to undersized, sickly infants. Five people died before the problem was traced to PCBs accidentally mixed into rice oil in a local rice-milling plant.

In 1976 and '77, as part of efforts to locate deposits of PCBs loose in the environment, the federal Environmental Protection Agency discovered huge concentrations of them virtually surrounding the OMC plant: at the bottom of the north end of the harbor, in a ditch and pond to the north and west of the plant, and eventually under OMC's parking lot.

Of course, nobody in Waukegan is ingesting those PCBs directly, as the Japanese victims did. "The problem," Tom Murphy explains, "is that they don't break down, and they're bioaccumulative." Meaning that once they get into a living organism, they tend to stay put, building up to higher and higher concentrations with each link of the food chain. There might be a tiny number of PCB molecules--call it x--in a microscopic water organism. A bigger organism eats enough of the smaller fry to accumulate 10x of PCBs. Then a small fish eats enough of those to accumulate 100x. Then comes a medium size fish, then a trout, then a trout fisherman, with the amount of PCBs ingested multiplying each time.

Soon after the PCBs were discovered, OMC, EPA, and the Illinois EPA initiated talks about cleaning them up. More than a decade later, after a series of epic legal battles going right up to the Supreme Court, and political wrangles reaching to Springfield and Washington, and too many cleanup proposals to describe here, they're still talking about it. The New York Times and national TV reporters have come and gone, the story has long since faded from the Tribune and Sun-Times news pages--and they're still talking about it. A columnist for the Waukegan News-Sun complained:

"Over the past several years, the U.S. EPA has given the same answer to the following question: When will the PCBs be removed from Waukegan Harbor?

"The answer: Next summer.

"It doesn't seem to matter which year the question is asked. The answer stays the same."

That was written in 1981.

There are several good reasons why the EPA is no closer to cleaning up the PCBs now than it was in 1977. Chief among them has been OMC's no-holds-barred, dig-in-the-heels legal battle to avoid paying for taking out of the harbor what they put into it. But EPA has not been blameless. At one point, for example, the agency proposed a cleanup plan that would have simply done away with Larsen's Marine, a family-owned marina that had the bad luck to be located right next to the OMC outfall. The howl of protest reached all the way to the Illinois legislature, which passed a resolution against the plan. EPA quickly went back to the drawing board, and not for the first time. Such blunders have earned EPA the scorn of many Waukeganites.

Residents of the area, naturally reluctant to believe that their harbor is full of deadly toxins, also wonder about the health hazards represented by Waukegan's PCBs. Many point out that the Illinois Conservation Department still stocks the harbor with a third of a million trout and salmon each year, and that Waukegan's drinking water is still drawn from an intake located about 6,000 feet straight out from the mouth of the harbor. Environmental authorities have no objection to these practices, the locals say, so how dangerous can the stuff be? Mayor Robert Sabonjian is not the only Waukeganite who asked me pointedly, "Who's died?"

(The drinking water is not a concern, explains DePaul chemist Tom Murphy, for the same reason that the PCBs are mostly in the bottom sediments: they're heavier than water, and therefore sink. Six thousand feet out in the lake, PCBs are in concentrations of parts per trillion, and "there's no problem" drinking the water, he says. As for the fish, they are released in the new harbor, away from the heavy PCB concentrations. A joint advisory by the four Lake Michigan states warns fishermen not to eat several classes of Great Lakes fish, including bottom feeders like carp and catfish and any fish caught in the old harbor. Pregnant and nursing mothers, and even female children, are advised to be especially careful because PCBs have been linked to fertility problems and shown up in mother's milk.

(As for the contention that no one has died or even got sick from Lake Michigan PCBs, EPA project manager Dan Caplice answers, "It's similar to cigarette smoking. There are very few chemicals about which you can say, 'If you take this, you will get that.' But if you smoke, you have a lot better chance of getting cancer. Not everybody who ingests PCBs will get sick; but some will. The whole Superfund process [EPA's national toxics cleanup program] is based on potential hazards.")

For some time after PCBs were found in Waukegan Harbor, OMC challenged the EPA to prove that PCBs were truly dangerous. The original federal Superfund law, passed in 1980, was not well designed to resolve such controversies, and OMC successfully blocked the cleanup in federal court. In 1986 Congress passed a new Superfund bill, expanding EPA's power in clear language aimed specifically at the Waukegan situation. Finally, with the legal tide clearly running against it, OMC caved in. Spokesman Laurin Baker says, "There was a decision that it was in the best interests of everybody that we get this matter resolved." So OMC proposed their own cleanup plan and set aside $15 million to pay for it. Of course their plan wasn't quite the same as the EPA's, so now the two are . . . well, talking.

EPA's latest cleanup plan, estimated to cost around $30 million, is what the agency's Waukegan project manager, Dan Caplice, calls the "most reasonable" option.

The "Cadillac" cleanup, Caplice says, would be "to take everything out of there and totally destroy it." PCBs can be destroyed, by being incinerated at high temperatures, but that process is tremendously expensive: Caplice said it would cost "hundreds of millions, maybe a billion dollars."

The "Honda" cleanup, by contrast, would be to simply dig up the material and truck it all to a landfill. "But we don't like that," Caplice says. "It's simply moving the problem."

Besides, Caplice says, whether the material is going to a landfill or an incinerator, the sheer volume of it causes another, possibly bigger headache. Simply getting it all to a landfill in Zion, 15 miles away, would require about half a million truck-miles. The trucks, no matter how well built, would inevitably leak, and when you're hauling that volume of material, it doesn't take much leakage to cause big problems.

So the EPA has settled on a mostly "on-site" solution--probably a Buick on Dan Caplice's scale. The most heavily contaminated sediments are to be dredged and taken to a "batch plant." There, they will be "solidified" into "a non-flowable state" by being combined with cement or ash. The solids would then be dumped at a federally approved toxics landfill.

Several acres of vacant OMC-owned land on the east side of the old harbor are to be appropriated for a large "de-watering lagoon." The sediments with lower concentrations are to be dredged and dumped into the lagoon to dry out, a process taking about two years. The most contaminated of that will then head for the batch plant.

The east half of the OMC parking lot, which has hard glacial bedrock 12 to 15 feet below it, is slated to become a permanent containment cell with clay walls down to the bedrock. With the addition of the dried material from the lagoon, and a clay roof, the cell would become a new parking lot atop a 15-foot-high ridge.

Before a cleanup actually began, Caplice says, EPA would "reevaluate" various other techniques proposed for getting rid of PCBs. Over the past few years, those have included a claim that a certain type of bacteria would eat the PCBs, and a proposal to turn the PCBs into salt by adding sodium. Caplice says that none of these has yet been proved effective, but if one does emerge in the future, the Waukegan PCBs could be dug up and eliminated.

What does OMC think of this plan? The company and EPA have agreed not to discuss the specifics of their negotiations, but Laurin Baker does say that OMC's counterproposal is based on "a number of concerns" about the EPA plan.

"[The EPA plan] appears to us to be economically not viable, and environmentally could cause more problems than doing nothing at all," Baker says. "It would cause tremendous disruption of lakefront activities, and would cost more than what we would call a cost-effective remedy."

Dan Caplice says the question of who will pay for the cleanup "is a point of negotiation. We're hoping to work something out." Baker says: "We are hoping to make some progress in the next few months." It is still EPA policy to force the "responsible party" in such cases to pay for the cleanup, Caplice says.

Of course, if an agreement is reached, and it is significantly different from the EPA plan, then the government's approval process would have to be reopened, with public hearings, likely further revisions, and so forth. Then comes design work, engineering, and other planning. It would be, Caplice says, "two to three years, from the time of an agreement," before the PCBs are dredged.

The folks in Waukegan aren't holding their breath. Nor are they holding back on their plans any longer. Gerry Larsen, owner of Larsen's Marine, says he had some improvement plans in mind for the marina when the PCB problem surfaced. "We delayed for two or three years, waiting to see what would happen, but finally went ahead with some," he says. "Basically, we've had to put it out of our minds and go about our business."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Tom Herzberg.

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