This summer, the Chicago Park District busily planted rye and alfalfa on the grounds of Chicago's old U.S. Steel South Works facility as part of an innovative project to turn the former slag site into a park. Officials expect the plantings to sprout by mid-September, a foreshadowing of the park to come.
But this project isn't just another greening project for Chicago: It's part of an innovative Mud-to-Parks project in which 105,000 tons of sediment were dredged from Peoria Lake, loaded onto 79 barges and shipped 163 miles up the Illinois River to Chicago's old South Side steel mill, formerly a slag-covered site devoid of life. There, it was unloaded and spread atop the slag, covering 17 acres to a depth of two to three feet.
Lieutenant Governor Pat Quinn, Congressman Ray LaHood (R-Peoria), Chicago Park District General Superintendent Timothy J. Mitchell and others celebrated in May as the first scoop of sediment was dredged from the Illinois River at Peoria Lake destined for Chicago.
"Over the years, there has been a lot of talk of combating the silt problem in the Illinois River," LaHood said in May. "And today is a day when talk turns into action. This 'silt send-off' launches a national model for creative solutions to the problem of sedimentation."
The newly emancipated mud was then spread over the park in preparation for the summertime seeding by the Chicago Park District. Eventually, the plantings and the rich, fertile sediment will begin to turn into a green space on the Lake Michigan shore.
"The Mud-to-Parks project is a great victory for the environment, both in Central Illinois and Chicago," says Quinn, who chairs the Illinois River Coordinating Council. "We're reducing sediment build-up in Peoria and simultaneously transforming an industrial slag field into a green park."
The trail-blazing idea was conceived by Dr. John Marlin, an Illinois Department of Natural Resources scientist. Marlin ran a pilot project in 2002, in which sediment was collected near Peoria and barged to a Chicago landfill, where it was unloaded and spread. Grasses now grow on the site.
"There's enough sediment in Peoria Lake to fill a football field 10 miles high," says Marlin, who approached Quinn in February 2003, and a diverse working coalition was organized.
"This is a model of bipartisan, intra-agency cooperation, which couldn't have been accomplished without the aid of Congressman LaHood, the Army Corps of Engineers, State of Illinois, City of Chicago, and park districts in both Chicago and Peoria," Quinn says. "And it's a living tribute to the vision and tenacity of Dr. John Marlin, who showed us all how one person can make a difference."
Sedimentation is the biggest problem facing the Illinois River. Each year, 14 million tons of sediment go into the river basin, the equialent of 17,808 truckloads daily. A particular problem in the Peoria Lake area, sediment reduces navigability of barge traffic and destroys habitat for fish and waterfowl. Some duck populations have decreased by 90 percent. Boating and other water sports have been greatly hindered as well.
Meanwhile, Chicago has dozens of "brownfields" and old industrial sites in need of restoration. Obtaining topsoil from suburban sites is costly and requires shipment by thousands of trucks over state highways and Chicago streets. Each barge handles the equivalent of 75 semi-trailer trucks, so barging the topsoil limits wear and tear on state and city roads.
"The sediment in Peoria Lake originally came from far upriver," Quinn says. "The Mud-to-Parks project is helping Mother Nature return the soil to its source."