Mrvan visits East Chicago, Portage, other sites to tout federal investments in local projects

Ongoing work at the Indiana Harbor and Canal in East Chicago is an economic development project with an environmental benefit, U.S. Rep. Frank Mrvan, D-Highland, said Tuesday.

Mrvan was on hand to tour the work on the Confined Disposal Facility where contaminated sediment from the first dredging of the IHC in 40 years is stored. Work currently underway at the site is designed to increase the CDF storage capacity so continued maintenance dredging can go on for decades.

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The CDF work which includes raising the current dike by 11 feet has received approximately $8.2 million in 2022 as a community funded project through the American Rescue Plan Act. Another $8.6 million has been earmarked for 2023. Earlier in the day, Mrvan visited three other Region projects that received federal funding: $1.5 million for maintenance of a small boat harbor at Burns Waterway in Portage, $2.7 million for sand nourishment activities at the Indiana Dunes National Park’s Mount Baldy, and $7 million to repair Michigan City Harbor’s detached breakwater, including the east pier superstructure in around the lighthouse.

The continued investment being made at the IHC will help enhance the clean-up efforts of the contaminated site while furthering the ability of local industry to more efficiently utilize the harbor and canal, Mrvan said.

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“All of the steel and other industries (in Northwest Indiana) utilize the Lake Michigan waterways to move products efficiently,” Mrvan said.

Dredging work done at the Indiana Harbor improves the efficiency of all the harbors on the Great Lakes, Mike Nguyen, project manager for the Indiana Harbor and Canal Confined Disposal Facility in East Chicago. The project was designed by the Army Corps of Engineers and dredging to remove about three feet of sediment began in 2012.

Removing the sediment brought the waterway to the 27-foot federal navigational depth required to allow larger ships to efficiently use the harbor and canal. The contaminated sediment from the dredging was moved to the CDF where the water is treated and returned to the lake and the sediment will remain so it cannot return to the watershed.

Raising the dike at the CDF by 11 feet will double its capacity and allow the site to continue accepting and processing sediment. Nguyen said the ability to process sediment in the region is limited, so having the site remain operational is a great benefit to industry in the region.

“We are trying to keep it open as long as possible,” Nguyen said.

“This will allow for maintenance dredging for the next 25 to 40 years,” he said.

Work on the dike is expected to be complete by late 2023. Maintenance dredging will resume in 2024.

Mark Lopez, Mrvan’s chief of staff, said the petroleum and metal industries in the Region — not just in East Chicago — dumped the contamination byproducts from their production in the Grand Calumet River for 100 years, which ultimately made its way to Lake Michigan.

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This project will continue to aid in the remediation of the contamination for years to come.

The CDF is located on the site of the Energy Cooperative Inc., a former refinery. After the company filed for bankruptcy in 1981, the court ordered he buildings razed, but the chemicals remained at the site. Placing the CDF at the site helped to prevent the further spread of legacy contamination from the refinery while providing a place to treat and store the contaminated sediment that was removed beginning in 2012.

Since 2015, about 64 million gallons of water annually have been treated at the CDF. The total cost of the decadeslong project to dredge the harbor and canal and construct the CDF is about $390 million.

Despite its erosion challenges, Portage Lakefront and Riverwalk Park remains the most popular destination in the Indiana Dunes National Park, Superintendent Paul Labovitz told Mrvan on Tuesday.

Mrvan toured the park to highlight the $922,000 in funding he secured for the Burns Waterway small boat harbor on the east side of the park.

The funding will allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to continue maintenance of the harbor used as a safe refuge for boats in adverse weather conditions.

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The small harbor is at the mouth of the channel that brings boaters from marinas upstream. Officials said the harbor was last dredged in 2013. Erosion control along the slopes to Burns Ditch was needed to reduce the rate of shoal accumulation in the channel that endangers navigation.

Army Corps of Engineers project manager Mike Nguyen told Mrvan dredged material from the harbor was being placed offshore adjacent to Ogden Dunes, just west of the park.

Mrvan’s earmark for the park is part of $22 million in funding he targeted for infrastructure needs in Lake, Porter, and LaPorte counties.

Labovitz told Mrvan the park and nearby Ogden Dunes beach are two distinct sand starvation areas created by construction of the Port of Indiana and Michigan City Harbor to the east that juts out into the lake.

Mrvan gazed out at the park’s beach, rejuvenated by 50,000 tons of sand nourishment. In 2020, high lake water levels and several storms nearly washed the beach away and the park closed it off to beachgoers.

“It’s enticing,” Mrvan said. “It’s great seeing sand being barged here. The Army Corps does what it can with the national park to establish shoreline nourishment.”

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cnapoleon@chicagotribune.com

Carole Carlson is a freelance reporter for the Post-Tribune.

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