BY SUSAN BROWN, Times of Northwest Indiana

EAST CHICAGO | Kay Nelson, director of environmental affairs for the Northwest Indiana Forum, doesn't discount the concerns leveled by community activists when it comes to the alarming state of the Indiana Harbor Ship Canal.

Privately funded more than 100 years ago by such high-powered Chicago businessmen as Henry Clay Frick, the ensuing decades have left the harbor and ship canal so awash in toxins, it is widely considered the most polluted harbor on the Great Lakes and perhaps in the country.

The canal's docks service the largest industrial giants in the region, most prominently Mittal and BP. Contaminated sediment is visible to the eye as it spews into Lake Michigan, the region's main source of drinking water.

Cleanup efforts have been on the drawing board for a decade, but the massive project has been delayed time and again. Dredging is now set to begin in 2009, but environmentalists continue to question the safety of the cleanup measures.

Nevertheless, Nelson and others familiar with the harbor believe it can recover and someday be incorporated into U.S. Rep. Pete Visclosky's ambitious Marquette Plan -- with the right mix of imagination and money.

The plan aims to recapture industrial lakefront for public use from Whiting to Portage, but Nelson said it's likely any plan for the East Chicago harbor will need to take in some form of coexistence with the surrounding industry for some time.

"The Marquette Plan is visionary," Nelson said. "It asks us to think out of the traditional box."

At the same time, Nelson said Visclosky's vision does not include jeopardizing jobs by advocating industries pull out to make way for public use of the property. It looks primarily to the future and reclaiming the land as it becomes available, she said.

Current occupancy aside, reclaiming the land isn't a far-fetched idea, according to Jennifer Miller, an environmental engineer with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

"As far as cleaning it up and making it accessible, that's possible," Miller said. "It's a matter of finding the technology and how much money do you have. If Mr. Visclosky has the funding, there's a lot that could be done."

Miller said Waukegan has a Superfund site that encompasses the harbor and a number of other industrial sites. The city has purchased the property and developed it for residential and recreational use, she said.

"One of the issues is land use and land ownership," she said.

Miller said in Waukegan the city has dealt with it by buying up the property.

"They have a big master plan, and they're just eking away at it," she said. "They recognize it's going to take a long time."

Dorreen Carey, a former director of the Grand Cal Task Force and current director of environmental affairs for the city of Gary, compared the potential of East Chicago to that of Cleveland.

"In Cleveland, the river used to catch fire," she said.

Redevelopment has opened up retail and recreational opportunities along the same riverfront, she said.

"There is a lot of potential out there, but it depends how each area enters into the necessary partnerships," Carey said. "The public should be involved in that discussion."

Carey said redeveloping the East Chicago harbor is of special interest to those with an interest in the "monumental industrial architecture" offered by the site.

And for others, there are proposals for potential redevelopment that wouldn't require getting in the water.
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