Local, state and federal authorities gathered in Waukegan on Tuesday to celebrate the end of a decades-long effort to clean the city's polluted harbor.
The work -- involving the removal or covering of contaminated sediment -- means the harbor is safer for people and wildlife. The harbor now can be scratched off a list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern, a roster maintained by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, officials said.
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Although people still shouldn't eat fish caught in the harbor, they can swim or kayak in the water, officials said.
"Today is a great day for Waukegan Harbor and Lake Michigan, a day that has been almost 30 years in the making," EPA Regional Administrator Susan Hedman told a crowd of supporters, volunteers, dignitaries and reporters during a news conference overlooking the harbor.
Hedman was joined by U.S. senators Dick Durbin and Mark Kirk, U.S. Rep. Brad Schneider, Gov. Pat Quinn, Mayor Wayne Motley and other politicians, some of whom have fought for years to get the funding needed for the project.
Waukegan Harbor was contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the former Outboard Marine Corp.
PCBs accumulate in fish and marine life and have led to fish consumption advisories. The chemicals can be harmful to children and are known to cause cancer in animals.
For years, many people have considered the harbor "a toxic waste dump," Durbin told the crowd.
"This was a dead harbor and a dying asset, and something had to be done," said Durbin, a Springfield Democrat.
Cleanup efforts began in 1991. Crews dredged the harbor bottom and removed more than 124,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, according to an EPA website about the project.
Some contaminated areas were covered with rock or concrete instead because they were too close to the sea wall.
The project cost an estimated $150 million.
At the lectern Tuesday, Kirk reached into a blue bucket and scooped a handful of gunk that had come from the harbor bottom to show the audience what was down there.
The Highland Park Republican, talked about how the harbor cleanup was his top priority when he first was elected to the U.S. House in 2000.
"It was kind of an obsession of mine," Kirk said.
Motley said a cleaner harbor makes Waukegan "a better place to live, work and play."