After 30 years of cleanup, Waukegan Harbor will soon be off EPA's 'concern' list
More than $150 million in federal funding have been spent since 1992 to remove harmful chemicals from Waukegan Harbor, and now officials say the harbor finally is poised to be taken off the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Great Lakes Areas of Concern list.
"It is moving in the right way and may be taken out shortly," said Max Pekcan, general manager of Waukegan Harbor and Marina. "Hopefully by the end of the year."
Waukegan Harbor is the only Illinois site on the EPA's Great Lakes Areas of Concern list. It will be taken off the list once scientists determine area fish and wildlife once again are safe for eating.
Pekcan said harbor leaders receive regular updates and the data is promising.
In February, Illinois lawmakers and local leaders gathered at Waukegan City Hall to celebrate President Joe Biden's bipartisan infrastructure plan for Great Lakes restoration -- a portion of the money is expected to fund the remaining cleanup effort at the harbor.
Waukegan Mayor Ann Taylor told the crowd once the label is off it will be easier to implement Waukegan's master plan, which calls for 120 acres of new waterfront neighborhoods, including homes and marina-based retail businesses. The goal is for the harbor to become a vibrant, diverse, mixed-use waterfront district for more than just anglers.
Getting to that bright future took a lot of work to eradicate the harbor's dark past.
Waukegan Harbor was contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, from the former Outboard Marine Corp., a manufacturer that at one time produced 60% of the country's boat motors. The company went bankrupt in 2000.
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.
When the harbor was designated as an Area of Concern in 1987, officials identified six common waterway uses that had been harmed due to environmental degradation. The contamination had closed the beaches, damaged habitats for fish and wildlife, and killed off small creatures, such as plankton and other organisms that live at the bottom of lakes.
Only when cleanup efforts lead to all six of those uses being restored can Waukegan Harbor come off the Areas of Concern list.
During dredging operations from 1992 until 2014, work crews removed more than 124,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, according to the EPA. Some contaminated areas were covered with rock or concrete instead because they were too close to the sea wall to remove.
Since 2011, five of six of those uses were restored and now just one remains: the restriction on eating fish and wildlife.
Scientists are monitoring the local fish populations to determine how safe they are to eat.
Even with the current restriction on fish and wildlife consumption in place, officials say some species of fish caught in the harbor, such as bluegill, rock bass and some sunfish, can be eaten once per month. There even is a fish-cleaning station at the harbor so recreational fishers can prepare what they've caught.
"It will be amazing," Pekcan said of the harbor being off the list.
"We will be advertising it everywhere that we succeeded and that the mark can come off our name."