Monday, October 27, 2014

Lacon Rhymes With Bacon

By Lee Vue, Paddle Forward Team

The welcome sign at the Lacon marina.
The small town of Lacon will always hold a special place in our hearts. Our time there was filled with so many good moments and overwhelming generosity from the locals. We arrived in Lacon early in the afternoon after battling a headwind from Henry for 8 miles.  We left our canoes at the marina and walked into town, stopping at the Marshall County Historical Society for a quick tour. The place has wonderful displays on the second floor and old farm tools in the back of the first floor. We were extremely fascinated by the collection of hundreds of wooden potato smashers.

The others had gone back to the Marina to prepare dinner while Anna, Jess, and I decided to stop by Julie’s Corner Store because we were beckoned by the huge word of “FUDGE!” We were looking around the store when Julie greeted us and asked about what we were doing in town since it was obvious we weren’t from around the area. There was a moment of miscommunication when Julie was telling us about a group of guys paddling the river and we were telling her about our river trip. Finally, the moment of realization occurred when we figured out that she was talking about us!  Julie was part of the welcome committee for our visit to Midland High School that was happening in a few days. She was excited to meet us and then she took a picture of us so she could post it on her Facbeook and gave us free fudge! She also walked us over to the local coffeeshop, The Coffee Hub, and gave us a gift card to use there. We were so overwhelmed with gratitude that smiles and constant “Thank You” were all we could manage.

Giddy as children, the three of us rushed back to the marina to meet the others for dinner. Everyone was super ecstatic to hear about Julie and then we ended up consuming a pound of fudge for dessert. Since we needed to complete adventure-learning tasks and needed WI-FI, we went back to The Coffee Hub to do some work. As the evening approach, Julie sought us out and asked us if we were interested in sleeping overnight in the coffeehouse. Of course, we accepted the offer because we would be dry, warm, and have access to WI-FI all night.  We had a lot of fun arranging our bedrolls around the tables and chairs.

We want thank everyone in Lacon especially Julie who made us feel extremely welcomed and spoiled. We will continue to share our stories of our experience in Lacon for years to come.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Dickson Mounds Museum

Across the River from Havana, IL resides the Dickson Mounds Museum. A property that was once owned by Dr. Don F Dickson in the late 1920’s. Dr. Dickson was working on the family farm when he discovered several grave sites from the people of the Mississippian Era on his family farm. The mounds were built by the people in the Mississippian Era as burial sites for their deceased. As Dr. Dickson uncovered several grave sites he discovered many artifacts with the dead (the artifacts can now be seen at the museum). Dr. Dickson later sold his property to the Illinois State Museum in 1965. The museum is now visited by people across the world and holds unique artifacts and historical information about the different people who lived in this special spot we now call Dickson Mounds.
Artifacts at the Museum
Three different groups of people lived in the area near Dickson Mounds at the confluence of the Illinois River and the Spoon River for over 12,000 years. The different tribes living in this area transitioned from hunter gathers to gardeners becoming more established through time and eventually creating towns with populations reaching over 800 people. This area sustained life for so many years because of the rich land that was left behind by the massive floods of the Ancient Mississippi River and the Illinois River. 
Mississippian Era Exhibit
We spent our time at the museum walking through the multiple floors of artifacts and historical information learning about the history, culture and geology of the area. While we were visiting, the Director of the Museum, Dr. Mike Wiant, stopped to talk with us about the museum. He shared with us many facts about the museum and the content inside. Part way through our conversation he strayed from museum facts and challenged us to think about why the Native tribes living in that area for over 12,000 years were so successful. If it wasn't for colonization the Native Tribes of the Illinois River valley would still be living there today. In the relatively new era of urbanization after colonization the river was channelized and the river floodplains drained for agriculture altering the Illinois River ecosystem forever.

Dr. Mike Wiant

The Illinois River is just one of many failing ecosystems in our World today. These ecosystems are failing because we demand too much from them. However, without them we cannot survive. We’re stuck between the ever increasing demand for food, energy, and water (to name only a few) and the reality is that we cannot meet the demand. We can lessen that demand changing what we need. If consumers (that’s you!) need less, there will be less of a demand on our ecosystems.

I encourage everyone to find out their ecological “footprint” by doing a short online activity. You will learn how many planets we would need if everyone in the World lived like you. Follow this website ( and see how.

Augsburg Feature: Dredging and Barges

Hey there Paddle Forward Crew! My name is Alex and I am also studying environmental studies along with my classmates at Augsburg College! This summer I was able to attend a ten day canoe trip down the Mississippi with my class and Liz, starting in St. Paul to Winona, Minnesota. Now back at school, it is fun to follow along with the Paddle Forward crew and relate their experiences on the Illinois to my own experiences that were on the Mississippi. While we were on our trip we saw many issues along the River and similar issues have been noted on the Illinois trip. Something that was interesting to me was the process of dredging and the use of barges along the river.
First off, dredging is the process of removing sediment and debris from the bottom of bodies of water. Dredging is used as a way to maintain depth and increase depths of channels used for navigation. The nine foot channel used on the Mississippi River and mouth of the Illinois is maintained by the United States Army Core of Engineers (USACE) and requires that the navigable channel be at least 9 feet deep and a minimum width of 400 feet to allow large barge tows to pass through the river. It is important for our economy that these barges travel through the Rivers because they carry about 15% of the United States freight. In the United States there are about 30,000 barges on our country’s waters which equal to about one billion dollars in goods per year. Barges tend to carry items in bulk because the cost of transporting goods on a barge rather than truck, rail, or airplane is very low. Goods they tend to be transporting include coal, grain, chemicals, trash, sand and gravel, materials that can be recycled and minerals like iron ore.
Although the nine foot channel has allowed our economy to transport goods efficiently by the use of barges, the creation of the nine foot channel and barge usage has had negative effects on rivers. For example, when a body of water must be dredged to increase the depth of a channel, the sediment and mud is vacuumed out. It must then be placed somewhere, but where? Along the Mississippi River we saw a few dredging operations and the outcomes of dredging operations. What usually happens after something is dredged is that the sand and sediments get put on islands creating huge piles of sand that sometimes equal well over hundreds of acres. The sand piles then destroy wildlife habitat and precious wetlands. Besides the fact that they look out of place, the USACE is constantly maintaining river channels because whether it be the Mississippi or Illinois River, the water is constantly moving and changing.
Barges also create problems to environmental health when they are damaged and left abandoned on water ways. Since it is not a priority of the USACE to find the owners of the abandoned barges they are often left to erode and pollute the water. The barges then become sites of dumping grounds of hazardous materials depending on what they were supplying and potential risks of oil spills. Since the Abandoned Barge Act of 1992, there has been an increase in barge clean up, but we still see abandoned barges on the water today. When the Abandoned Barge Act was passed it did not provide money for administration or removal of barges making the act almost ignored at times. It states that the owner has a certain time frame to remove barges from waters if they are no longer functional, but it is often hard to locate ownership of barges since many of them do not have to be officially registered. In 1997, there was 160 abandoned barges on the Mississippi, Missouri, and Illinois Rivers. The removal of two barges alone that contained hazardous material cost around $500,000.  People may not like the high costs of removing barges, but people also do not like they eyesore of a rusting barge in a beloved river.
The channelization of rivers has helped the United States economy find cheaper ways to transport goods, but at the expense of the river. If it were possible to find alternatives for the sand use after the dredging process or have stricter guide lines of barge abandonment, the river could increase its aesthetic beauty and become a healthier environment for all people and animals to enjoy.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Peoria Needs a Warning Label

A month before our trip began, I started having trouble breathing. A lot of trouble. My whole body was uncomfortable and I couldn’t eat as I struggled for air for three weeks. I can vividly remember one morning during that time when I woke up and was able to take two whole breaths. They felt so good and relief flowed through my body. Followed quickly by excitement as I thought I was better. Those two breaths were all I got though as my lungs returned to status quo and I was, once again, physically and emotionally drained.

During those three weeks I had been to multiple doctors. I was constantly out of breath and fatigued. A week before we left for Chicago I saw another doctor. That same day he ran lots of tests and diagnosed me with asthma. He gave me lots of medications that I still take today.

For the first time in almost a month, I could breath. I could cook breakfast without gasping. I could walk without breaks. So I departed for Chicago with the knowledge that I have asthma.

I didn’t know much about my asthma yet. It’s a little different for everyone. What are my triggers? What makes me sick? As the trip progressed I found two for sure: humidity and industrial emissions.

I remember Peoria, where there was a lot of industry, including coal fired power plants. I remember the sour taste of the air, the yellow haze lingering above the city, and the difficulty I had breathing as the air seemed to scour my lungs and exasperate my asthma.

We stayed several days in Peoria to tour and do school visits. My asthma started to bother me a day before we got there. I was breathing the industrial influence before I could even see the buildings.

Every day I woke up worse. Dependence on my rescue inhaler grew. It’s supposed to be taken before exercise and to quickly relieve symptoms of asthma attacks. In the asthma world, the doctors have defined 3 levels. Level 1: Green, all is good. Level 2 is yellow: rescue inhaler is needed, used, and works. Level 3: red. The red zone is when the rescue inhaler does not give relief for four hours.

By day 2 I had already entered the red zone. My lungs felt as if they had a texture. They were coarse, as if they were coated in sand. Sometimes they felt like tiny tubes that don’t want to expand. Other times air moved in and out and it never seemed to be enough; it felt like my lungs didn’t know what to do with the air that I was laboriously and consciously moving through them. Every breath felt like a third of what I needed.

Day 3 in Peoria and my health somehow deteriorated further. Getting out of bed was nearly impossible. I felt disgusting and woke up to the taste of the bitter air. I pulled myself together because when I get up I can get my medicine and we had things to do.

You know when you run or do some sort of exercise and you are short of breath for a couple of minutes as your body cools down? How you feel in those couple of minutes was my existence for the whole day. Just sitting still I could not catch my breath. My energy was draining. I talked less, out of discomfort. Talking took too much air and energy. My whole body was run down.

Emotions were welling up in me. I was a swirl of frustration, desperation, helplessness, and fatigue. Not everyone considers fatigue an emotion but I do here as it took its place in the confusing mix of feelings that were tearing up my eyes. For hours I worked to keep from crying as those emotions demanded my attention. I kept reassuring myself that I would be ok, I can do this, and that we were leaving the next day.

This whole time we had been camping north of Peoria and driving in for our visits. This is important because that meant that we still had to paddle through the heart of the industrial air waste.

Worn ragged, physically and mentally, I jumped into my canoe ready to paddle away to cleaner air. That paddle day was awful. We went by a large scale distillery and were surrounded by the aroma of fermentation. We paddled by something that made the air taste and smell sharp. I struggled with that one a lot. I held my breath for a bit so I would breathe in less of the pollutants. One of the places we passed smelled like someone ate Play-Doh and corn, then threw it up.

Both sides of the river banks were developed with industrial buildings. I remember thinking that the view of the river was better than from the river.

The day after leaving I already felt improvements in my health.

The night before we left Peoria we met with Laurel, a Field Organizer for the Central Illinois Healthy Community Alliance. They are concerned about the air and water quality in the Peoria area. She told us about the health struggles in the area as a result of high pollution levels. She explained that Peoria was in a “non-attainment” county. Meaning the county doesn’t have to meet existing air quality standards set by the EPA. I finally realized why I was having so much asthma trouble. Air quality standards are set to protect people. We had entered into a county that didn’t require their coal plants to abide by EPA regulations. Laurel explained that the exemption will last for a couple of years. The local coal plant had just changed ownership and, based on financial reasons, won’t be required to meet standards for a while. So the plant currently dumps 5 million gallons of polluted water into the river every day and 200 lbs of mercury a year. Sulfur Dioxide emissions have exceeded safe breathing levels. As a result, the community experiences high rates of cancer and asthma.

My heart aches for all the people that live in this area. Coal plants provide jobs and energy; two very vital aspects of our daily lives. But another vital aspect is clean air.

A compromise is possible. And not only possible, needed. There are many ways to provide jobs, energy, and clean air. One option is to update the coal plant so that less pollutants find their way into our atmosphere. The coal plant could also be switched to a cleaner energy source.

I went into this trip expecting to learn about the river and watershed. I not only gained an appreciation of that, but also a deeper understanding about air quality and industry. About the people on the river. About their homes. I hope they work out a compromise soon for a cleaner, thriving world and community. 

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Havana, City of Science

The excitement in Havana, IL began and ended with visits to biological research stations. It was somewhat surprising to find two premier scientific institutions in a small Illinois town, but it’s no coincidence: the Illinois River watershed has been one of the most studied river systems in the nation.

Director Heath Hagy showing us around Forbes Biological Station

Glacial movement in Illinois
We visited the Forbes Biological Station first, where the director Heath explained that the scientific interest stemmed from the rich and unique ecology of this area. The Illinois is different from the other major tributaries of the Mississippi River, because it used to be a part of the Mississippi itself. The ancient Mississippi River flowed where the lower Illinois River runs today, until a massive glacier crept south and blocked the river’s path. This damming effect diverted the Mississippi to the west to where it currently flows today. When the glacial dam receded north, it made the Mississippi River valley accessible, but the Mississippi’s waters were no longer flowing through this section of central Illinois. Instead, a relatively small amount of water from the upper Illinois River was being channeled into the existing river valley, which was unusually wide and allowed for vast floodplains on either side of the river. These floodplains provide abundant habitat for all sorts of waterfowl, migratory birds, fish, and aquatic vegetation. In simple terms, this region is teeming with life thanks to a big chunk of ice.

Taxidermied ducks
So of course, scientists have long flocked to this biological hotspot. The Forbes Biological Station, founded in 1894, is the oldest inland field station in North America, and home to the Bellrose Waterfowl Research Center. Their research focus was made clear when we stepped into the station and found ourselves staring at dozens of stuffed ducks and other assorted birds. Director Heath Hagy, our charismatic tour guide, showed us around the station, into the lab where they had a freezer stuffed with dead ducks.
Frozen ducks
At the microscopes, two poor souls were spending hours digging through soil core samples to pick out miniscule critters and seeds that make up the waterfowl diet. Another member of the research station greeted us at the end of our tour, having just landed from the small plane they use to count waterfowl. Imagine that: there is such a thing as a professional duck counter! We made plans to return to Forbes the next day and learn how exactly one counts ducks from a speeding plane. Unfortunately, we ran out of time to drive back to Forbes amidst all our other Havana activities, so we might never know!

Rich and Levi. These two give scientists a good name.
The next day, we did manage to make it to our tour of the Illinois River Biological Station. Unlike the other research station, this one studies the organisms beneath the Illinois’ murky waters. It’s fittingly located right on the main river, a block away from our campground. After our walking tour of Havana, our group was pleased to get out of the unseasonably hot weather and to enter the air-conditioned building, where we were introduced to Rich Pendleton and Levi Solomon. Rich and Levi are both fish specialists who are contributing to the Army Corps’ Long Term Resource Monitoring Program (LTRMP). On a day-to-day basis, they take their boats out to shock and/or net fish, then identify, weigh, and measure them. Year after year, this fieldwork accumulates into a mountain of data, illuminating trends in fish population or fish size through the years.

The research boat for the River Biological Station. We encountered it on the river days later!

The main goal of this decades-long research is to inform decision-making so that we can correct some of the mistakes of the past. The Army Corps’ transformation of the Illinois into a navigable river caused unimaginable habitat destruction, but there are signs that it is slowly being restored. This station’s data has shown that the 1972 Clean Water Act has cut down on pollution and brought back some native species. Despite the recent invasion of the Asian Carp, the Illinois River watershed looks to be on the upswing.

This news may please no group more than the hunters and fishers who frequent the extensive backwaters of the lower Illinois. I’ve never hunted and I’m not much of a fisher, but I’ve gained a newfound appreciation for this crowd. Before, I’d only been aware of the spent shotgun shells and beer cans littered on the ground, a sign to me that hunters and fishers didn’t care about the environment. However, in rallying around their sport, they have been one of the main drivers of conservation work. To hunt or to fish means you have a stake in the health of the ecosystem. Thus, wildlife refuges and preserves are created in the areas where duck hunting and sport fishing are popular. People love these places. Even Al Capone loved these natural areas – he would take a break from the mob scene in Chicago to boat down to Havana and hunt ducks each fall. As we discussed in an earlier blog, the government will pour a lot of money and resources into protecting the places that we use and love.

Army Corps of Engineers: Peoria

Our stop in Peoria brought a lot of activity for us. One of our visits was to the Army Corps of Engineers. Mike, the Director of Operations, and Andrew, the Head of Maintenance, met with us to teach us about the Illinois waterway, the construction of the locks, and the maintenance.

                The main purpose of the Army Corps of Engineers is to maintain the riverway so that traffic up and down the river is possible. Barges, as well as recreational boating, depend on the channel. The channel is a 9ft deep section marked on its sides with red and green buoys. Transporting goods on the river is much cheaper and more efficient than trucking on land. Congress has recognized the importance of the riverway and declared that the channel be maintained so that traffic on the river is possible.

                A huge aspect of making the rivers navigable is the lock and dams. The dams pool the water so it is possible to have it be 9 feet deep all the time. The locks allow safe travel up and down elevation changes. It works just like an elevator. The lock and dams on the Illinois River were all constructed 75 years ago. Each is unique to meet the needs of that area. The last two dams on the Illinois River are wicket dams, two out of the three in existence in the country. Wicket dams are special because when the water is high they lay the walls down. The water levels out and no elevation change exists. The dam can simply be passed over in barges, canoes, kayaks, or any watercraft. The construction of the lock and dams greatly changed the Illinois River’s transportation efficiency.
                Just as roads need maintenance, so do the locks and dams. Every repair is one of a kind and they do it themselves, including building the new parts. The locks and dams were only designed to last for 50 years, so lots of repairs have been popping up. This has increased budget needs as they work to update all of the old systems. A lot of the repairs require a dive team to operate underwater. The water is often murky so they work without seeing what they are doing! A cool fact about the Illinois River is that it is the only one that is open 24/7 every day of the year. This means in the winter they break up the ice so that traffic is possible. I never realized how much it took to make the rivers functional for transportation.

                The visit to the Army Corps of Engineers in Peoria opened my eyes to see the river in a new way. Rivers are important not only for wildlife and as a water source, but also for transportation and commerce.  

Engineering the River Highway

We would be remiss to not devote an entire blog to discussing the primary human use of the Illinois River: commerce. Us paddlers are not the main characters in this post; it’s the barges we saw, the locks and dams we passed through, and the Army Corps of Engineers that is behind it all. Now, for the story of the Illinois River highway.

Engineering the River Highway

Not surprisingly, commerce currently dominates the river traffic on the Illinois. We saw a decent number of pleasurecraft (aka recreational motorboats), and a small handful of fellow paddlers, but the vast majority of boats on the river were massive, lumbering barges. Made up of a single tugboat pushing a long chain of barges (storage vessels that float), this unit is the standard for river commerce these days. And the river highway has been engineered to make barge travel as easy as possible.

This barge is moving upstream (right). The white tugboat (left) is pushing the linked barges from behind.

Before it was made into a “navigable” river, commerce still took place on the Illinois. For a while, the French voyageurs were the main traders on the waterway, and their canoes functioned as the first barges on the river. Despite the chance that disaster could strike at each set of rapids, they dared to use the river in its natural state. Although we too are paddling the river hundreds of years later, it is nowhere near as dangerous or difficult a task. In fact, we’re paddling a totally different river.

From right to left in the image, barges descend the river like a staircase
Original artwork by Daniel M. Short
To accommodate the larger riverboats that could make shipping more efficient, the Army Corps started to manage the river around the turn of the twentieth century. The river was transformed into a deeper, wider and slower beast, predictable around every turn. To make this happen, the Army Corps built seven lock-and-dam structures on the Illinois to control its flow and depth. The water between an upstream lock and a downstream lock forms into a “pool,” basically a stretch of the river that stays at a fairly uniform height. These pools in effect create a gigantic staircase for boats: each step is level for several miles, then the lock drops the water level up to 35 feet at once, then the river levels out again. Without much elevation change between locks, the water flows slowly – good for barges, sad for canoes.

The dredging boat sucks up sand and water, sends it through a pipe...
To aid commerce further, the Corps dredges the river, removing sediment from the bottom to maintain a channel depth of 9 feet, deep enough for fully loaded barges. With constant maintenance, the Army Corps has tamed the wildness out of the Illinois, standardizing it to meet the specifications of modern barges.

...that deposits it here, alongside someone's corn field. Mark is wondering who will clean up this mess.

The Last Lock and Dam

Barges and locks and dams were so much a part of our everyday experience on the river that we barely noticed them by the end. I wouldn’t be writing about them so long after their mystique wore off if not for our visit to the Melvin Price Lock and Dam on our very last day in Illinois. We were already done with paddling – we’d packed up our canoes and sent them back to Minnesota with Natalie the day before – so we transported ourselves by car/legs down to the lock and dam in Alton.

Melvin Price Lock and Dam - an impressive and formidable structure
Photo credit to George W. Goeken
Melvin Price is actually on the Upper Mississippi, and it is the largest, most state-of-the-art lock in the country. Completed in 1989, it’s also the newest lock, replacing one built in 1938. Many of the nation’s existing locks were built in the early part of the 20th century, so most are severely aging and no longer meet the needs of modern barges. A single tugboat is currently allowed to tow 42 barges at a time, making for a single floating entity that is nearly 1200 feet long. The standard lock chamber is only 600 feet long, which forces tugboats towing full capacity to send only half their barges through the lock chamber at a time. That requires detaching the upstream half of the barge tow, locking it through, mooring that half, returning the lock chamber to its previous water level, then sending the second half through and reconnecting it. A frustrating process, to say the least. We felt the consequences of this inefficiency more than once. One day, we spent over three hours sitting in the rain while we waited for our turn to be locked through. Not fun for us paddlers, but for the barge companies, it equates to a huge amount of potential dollars lost.

Melvin Price from above: small chamber on left, large chamber on right
In one of their greatest construction feats ever, the Army Corps constructed the Melvin Price Lock and Dam to have two lock chambers, one the standard 600 feet and the other 1200 feet in length, the first of its kind. This means that a tugboat can send all its barges through at once, cutting the wait time from 2 or 3 hours to 20 minutes. Given its proximity to the mouth of the Illinois and Missouri Rivers, Melvin Price is one of the most heavily trafficked locks in the country. Earlier this year, they found out how inefficient this specific lock would be if it was the standard size. Some of the cables on the large chamber were corroding, so the Army Corps closed that chamber for maintenance from January to August. With only the 600-foot auxiliary chamber operational, river traffic backed up dramatically. Some barges had to wait 3 to 4 days for their turn to lock through! The effects of this slowdown reverberated through the economy, with price increases in certain sectors.

Most people forget about river commerce, but barges are big business. After we toured the Melvin Price Lock and Dam, I picked up a lot of cool facts and statistics at the on-site Great Rivers Museum to reinforce this claim. As mentioned above, the Army Corps has engineered a river that allows a 24/7 shipment of goods upstream and downstream. In general, coal, steel, chemicals, and oil move upriver, while corn and soybeans move downriver. On the Upper Mississippi alone (the river north of St. Louis), barges transport $77 billion of goods each year! And they do so in a much more economical and fuel-efficient way than trucks and even trains. Barges produce nearly a quarter of the emissions that trucks produce with the same amount of cargo. At this time, barges represent 14% of intercity commerce in the U.S., and they make up only 3% of the total cost. Seems like the government should be pouring a lot of resources into expanding river commerce. But putting more barges on the river isn’t the solution; we would need to rebuild dozens of locks to be the size of Melvin Price to see massive improvements in efficiency. Is it worth the multi-multi-billion dollar investment? Maybe. The Army Corps is currently rebuilding the Olmsted Lock and Dam on the Ohio River, which could be the next step in a major overhaul of America’s river infrastructure. If it does happen, it will likely take a long, long time.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Augsburg Feature: Superfund Sites

Hey Paddlers!  My name is Charles and I am senior Environmental Studies student.  I was on the canoe trip with Emily and a couple of the other students who have been blogging. I was inspired by the latest blog post concerning recent excursion into DePue to look into some of the challenges with Superfund sites and ways around those challenges.

 The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act  (CERCLA) also known as the Superfund, was a $1.8 billion fund paid into by taxes on petrochemical companies, an example of what is called the “polluter pays” principle.  Areas are cleaned to achieve a “Greenfield” or pollution-free status. However, the taxes were not renewed after 1996, and no other tax pays into the fund. 

Until recently, CERCLA only provided for landowners to clean up the hazardous sites themselves, or to pay the EPA to cleanup.  The Obama Administration’s Re-Powering America’s Land initiative allows the repurposing of Superfund sites into locations for wind or solar energy.  This is essential since many of the sites are beyond a level of reasonable repair for human habitat.  The Reilly Tar & Chemical Corp site in Indianapolis is the first such site on which the initiative is being used.  Of the 120 acres of hazardous land on the site, 48 are being repurposed as a solar “farm” called the Maywood Solar Farm.

This past year, however, the Supreme Court ruled that CERCLA is still subject to State filing deadlines.  After ten North Carolinian landowners discovered high levels of carcinogens in the groundwater, they sued the electronics manufacturer that they had bought the land from in 1987. However, there is a filing deadline in North Carolina of ten years, and the Supreme Court ruled in favor of state’s rights. Oftentimes we don’t discover the truly deleterious effects of pollutants until well over a decade after their primary use, so the court case was a blow not only to environmental protection but also logic itself.

To put this into perspective, it can be interesting to see how other parts of the world handle these sorts of situations.  Throughout the European Union, there is a broad group of policies referred to as “Environmental liability regimes.”  In their weakest forms, they are similar to CERCLA, only weaker for the most part, except in the countries of Italy, Latvia, and Lithuania.  The ELR agreed to by most of the EU does not fine polluters retroactively, meaning that decades of pollution caused before the bills won’t be cleaned up.  Also, individuals and NGOs are not allowed to sue polluters directly. Sites are given priority through the ELR not by their pollution level, but by the future planned use.  Lastly—this is the largest divergence from Superfund—payment does not come from the taxes of one industry in particular.

Unfortunately, in the U.S. the Superfund has run out of serious funds before the country ran out of areas to clean up--like the site in DePue.  However, we can make reforms to the program to strengthen it.  Similarly to the EU, the United States should use a broader tax base to create the CERCLA trust fund.  If the land use is only suited for industrial use, the Re--Powering America’s Land initiative can create green jobs and help to pay for cleanup in residential areas. 

The residents of polluted land deserve the right to sue polluters, regardless of how long ago the pollution happened.  This is the only way I can see the residents of DePue getting the justice they deserve from Exxon and CBS. 

Well, paddlers, I’m sure that you’ve become more acutely aware of the both the subtle and overt pollution that exists around us.  Don’t lose hope! The planet has an amazing ability to renew itself.  This was one of the things that struck me the most on my own trip.  Here’s to a cleaner tomorrow!

Friday, October 3, 2014

We Visit DePue, IL and a Superfund Site

In 1999, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) formally added the DePue/New Jersey Zinc/Mobil Chemical Superfund Site to the National Priorities List. A superfund site is an area designated by the Federal Government as both abandoned and severely polluted. The Environmental Protection Agency is responsible for cleaning up the site and holding the entities who caused the toxic pollution responsible for the damage. This superfund site is composed mainly of the by products of zinc smelting that occurred and accumulated over 80 years. We paddled directly South of Depue Lake. I wanted to meet with the key players in this tragedy. I called the Illinois EPA to try and set up a meeting with them. The IEPA was not as enthused about our interest as they could have been. I was unable to set up a meeting with anyone at the EPA. My contact at the IEPA suggested I reach out to the Mayor of Depue, Eric C. Bryant, because he, “loves talking about the site.” We found out that not only does he love to talk about the site, he has a wealth of knowledge and opinions about the clean-up process in Depue.

Mayor Bryant brought with him a couple maps which detailed the various “Operational Units (O.U.s),” (there are five) located within Depue. These O.U.s represent the individual waste sites left behind by the New Jersey Zinc Co., now the Horsehead Corporation, smelting plant which opened in 1903. Mobil Chemical, now Exxon Mobil, also had sites in Depue. CBS/Viacom is involved in this site as well. Yes the broadcast company. I have not been able to find out why. Some sites and stories say that CBS/Viacom bought out New Jersey Zinc. Others say that the New Zersey Zinc Co. owned the rights to Jurassic Park; part of that deal involved CBS/Viacom assuming responsibility over New Jersey Zinc. I have come across no clear reason as to why a television broadcast company would be involved or implicated in a contaminated Superfund site. 

The contaminants in these sites resulted from the poor handling of the products and by-products of zinc smelting. Remnants of zinc smelting can be used to create fertilizer among other things, because of this, a chemical processing plant was built on site to convert the zinc smelting by-products into fertilizer. Slag piles are condensed, solid-waste by-products of the smelting process which tend to be super heavy. Depue has a zinc slag pile which weighs in at 750,000 tons. That's the equivalent of 150,000 Asian elephants. Every time it rains contamination leeches from the pile into the soil. Particles from the pile blow into the yards, houses, and nostrils of the residents every time there are strong gusts of wind. Besides the slag pile, as if that wasn't enough, there are 100 plus acres of something known as a phosphogypsum stack. Ground water leeches contaminants out of the phosphogypsum stack and the zinc slag pile, especially when it rains. This ground water is directed through a drainage ditch, known as the south ditch, directly into Depue Lake.
Teresa Woodruff, Northwestern University Superfund Research Center in Reproductive Health Hazards director, has proposed a reproduction study to be conducted on Depue residents. This will be the first scientific study on the superfund site's health effects on people.  Studies have not been conducted because Depue is struggling financially simply to maintain litigation with CBS and Exxon Mobil. A lack of studies can not deny unusual occurrences such as paint chipping off of cars, the wells in town needing to be dug over 10,000 feet deep (that's just under 2 and a half miles down), and undeniably high cancer rates. The Horsehead Corporation has successfully buried the problem in money going towards lawyers and covering up the implication of their organization.

Depue Lake borders Depue to the South. Less a lake, more a suppository for contaminants. These contaminants have been pooling at the bottom of the lake, which then requires dredging if the town is to keep its nationally acclaimed, annual boat races up and running. Allowing the town to fester is not a just solution. The residents rely on this tourist-based stream of revenue. Dredging is not cheap. Dredging is not sustainable. Without manufacturing jobs to keep the population up, Depue has slowly drained of residents. That leaves the town with a dedicated and resilient population. Corporations took liberties with their waste; by doing so they took liberties with human rights. People who live in Depue deserve life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. When slag heaps threaten to shorten lives, Corporations have sold off or taken away liberties, and the residents of Depue despair for the future. There must be drastic change; the entities responsible for this toxic waste must be held accountable for their mess.

Joliet to Spring Valley: Absorbing the River

By Mark Emmons, Paddle Forward Team

This section reflects on the five days of paddling between Joliet and Spring Valley, IL. Now that we’ve spent a good chunk of time on the river, I want to talk about the connections forming on the water.

Absorbing the River

Rivers are interdisciplinary classrooms. There are plenty of metaphors to illustrate this point, but I’ll go with the simplest one: rivers are connectors. They connect point A and B upstream to point C downstream. But the connection goes much deeper than geography. Rivers contain our most life-sustaining resource, and thus allow the connections that make human life possible – commerce, fishing, industry, agriculture, etc. In paddling down the Illinois River, we get the opportunity to study all of these subjects.

With all this material surrounding us, I feel like a sponge, absorbing everything around me. Since we face the unknown around every river bend, each curve becomes an opportunity to learn. All it takes is a set of eyes and the curiosity to use them. It’s that childlike wonder that gets us to ask questions, to suspend the belief that we understand everything going on around us. Much of what we see on the river comes with no explanation, so we take pleasure in coming up with theories. On the day we paddled 25 miles from Joliet to Morris, we came across some rusted-out barges half-submerged in the river. What happened there? Well, a barge company could have abandoned them. Or perhaps there was a wreck. Have we considered the possibility of river pirates? We had no way of actually discovering the answer, but our minds raced with creative hypotheses and questions. In this instance, we didn’t uncover any further evidence, so we created our own story to explain it. For fun’s sake, we ended up staging a reenactment of our take on the events that led to the barges sinking (river pirates were the leading theory; here is the link to our video on YouTube!).

But sometimes, we do end up learning the rest of the story. Our group is constantly ingesting new information and connecting it to our earlier experiences. Constantly. Many times a day. Often, we take in visual information while we’re paddling and only make sense of it days later. For example, the day we left Morris, we saw the landscape become more rocky and bluffy as we paddled down to our next campsite at Starved Rock State Park. This park is the gem of Illinois, home to sandstone canyons that rise up a hundred feet above their sandy bottoms. We devoted an entire day to hiking/running through the park and marveling at the geological wonders. At the end of the day, I had thoroughly enjoyed the canyons, but still did not understand why they were there. Two weeks later and 112 miles downstream, we unexpectedly learned the answer from Mike Wiant, the director of the Dickson Mounds Museum in Lewistown, IL. It turns out that a massive glacial flooding event carved out the canyons 16,000 years ago. This information would have felt completely irrelevant to me without our visit to Starved Rock to pique my curiosity. Something as abstract as geologic history can come alive when I can connect an expert’s explanation to my own observations.

In this fashion, we are piecing together a picture of the Illinois River watershed. Nick Ryan, who is both the Wild River Academy Director of Operations and our trusty driver, puts it this way, “We explore the river as generalists, but we rely on the work of specialists. By devoting their lives to the study of one thing, these experts create bubbles of knowledge. As we move from subject to subject along the river, we attempt only to dip our feet in their bubbles.” As we’ve progressed down the river, we’ve been able to meet with a widening circle of experts, thanks to Nick’s outreach efforts. We could have chosen to read extensively on topics ranging from waterfowl conservation to dam restoration, but instead, we’ve been able to visit the people and facilities where this work is going on. These face-to-face interactions have been invaluable in connecting everything. A museum director like Mike Wiant can weave together a narrative of the history of the Illinois River Valley in a way his museum cannot. We have been very privileged to meet with a wide range of experts, who have all patiently responded to our barrage of questions.

We’ve also been fortunate with our chance encounters with the locals of the Illinois River. In a way, the river is embodied in these people. When we left Starved Rock, we paddled to the small town of Spring Valley, and camped at a boat launch. In the morning, I awoke to the river illuminated by a golden fog. As we were taking down camp, a Ford truck rolled over to observe this hectic scene. Out of the truck walked 75 year-old Bob Posey, a member of the Spring Valley Walleye Club. We got to talking, and I listened to his story. It was nothing out of the ordinary, but it captured me with how tightly it was bound to the river. Bob had fished this stretch of the river his whole life, and seen it change with pollution, then restoration, then Asian Carp. His face lit up as he told me, “I used to take moving pictures of my kids waterskiing on the river, and you’d think it was a wilderness paradise.” We both looked out at the Illinois to admire its morning splendor, and at that moment, his words rung true. For that moment, I felt a powerful connection to this 75 year-old man, brought together by our collective experience of the river.

Oh Joliet, Oh Joliet!

By Lee Vue, Paddle Forward Team

The Arrival
We arrived in Joliet, Illinois as the evening descended upon us. We were immediately drawn to the abandoned barges on river-right that had the unique characteristic of being overtaken by nature being entirely covered with trees and grass on top. We scouted the area and came upon a flat area that was obviously deer beds, which we decided would be great for placing the tents. Despite the threat of poison ivy surrounding us, we agreed that the abandon barges would make the best campsite for our stay in Joliet. It provided us with privacy and access to downtown Joliet (within walking distance).

The Wi-Fi Adventure
The following morning, I awoke to the light sound of trotting. I quickly got out of the tent with my camera in-hand and peered through the trees to see two deer crossing the train tracks! As I approach them, the ears of one of the deer perked up having noticed my movement and within seconds, they jumped to the other side of the forested area. Feeling satisfied that I manage to get a decent photo, I continued on with my morning routine.

After breakfast, we walked into town in search of free Wi-Fi so we could work on adventure-learning tasks. Google Maps had informed us of a local coffee shop called “Jitters” with the bulleted description of “older women drinking” was located within a mile of our location. As we were walking towards the downtown center, we noticed that streets were being block off with metal railings to prevent cars from entering. We entered Jitters with eagerness to be productive and relax. Jitters has a homely feel with dimmed lights and comfortable couches in the back. There’s a piano on the far left corner that welcomes any hands to play the keys. We ordered our drinks and unpacked our backpacks onto the coffee table, but then after a few minutes of nudging ourselves into the sofas, we realized that the Internet wasn’t working. We finished our drinks and made the decision to move on to find another place with Wi-Fi.

Across the street was the public library so we made our way there. On the second floor, we found a large table to accommodate the seven of us. An hour into our time at the library, we were frustrated at the low speed of the Internet. Uploading wasn’t going as well as we had hope; therefore, we packed up again and moved on to a new place. There was Starbucks located inside the Harrah’s casino near the riverfront of downtown. We arrived at Starbucks only to be informed by the baristas that the Internet was  down. At this point, our unsuccessful luck with Wi-Fi was reaching a point of annoyance. After walking around the casino to find a place with outlets for our electronics, we situated ourselves at a corner of a lounge. We logged onto the casino’s free Wi-Fi with our fingers cross that the Internet would be fast. It turns out that Harrah’s Internet was working great so we ended up staying there for a good few hours.

On our way back to the car, we came upon crowds hovering on the side of the street and trucks with racecar images on them honking their way through the streets. Apparently, it was the Fan Rally Race for the Chicagoland Speedway that weekend. Everything suddenly made sense: the blocked streets, police patrols, and event tents being set up. We were super excited to be in town for the event so we walked around for free samples and then had dinner at the local restaurant, Blue Taco.

That night, we attended the benefit concert at the Joliet Area Historical Museum. The event was supposed to be held on the rooftop, but the weather was slightly too chilly so everything was moved to the basement. We seated ourselves near the front as the band, Soul Motion, began playing their set. The music was a mixture of country and soul; it was the type of the music that had us tapping our shoes and bopping our heads. No one was dancing though. Eventually one couple started dancing in the corner in front of the stage. We soon joined them and found ourselves dancing for the entirety of the night. We ended the night on the rooftop watching the fireworks from the Fan Rally event.

The New Neighbor
We returned to the campsite only to be blinded by a light beam. The beam came from a barge that had moored right next to us! It was using the abandoned barge to anchor for the night and the workers were curious about the tents. We chit chatted with a few of them until the late night.

The City of Stone and Steel
On our second full day in Joliet, we did a self-tour of the Joliet Iron Works Historic Site. The production of steel and the local limestone quarries were located on the site in the 1900s. These two industries largely contributed to Joliet’s economy; hence the city was nicknamed “The City of Stone and Steel.” It was the second largest steel mill in the US from 1869 to 1936, but ceased all operations in the early 1980s. Today, the site is a forest preserve where the public can enjoy bike trails and picnic shelters.  It was fascinating to see the ruins of the blast furnaces and brick skeletons of the buildings because of it’s importance to the city on a historical level and what little remains of it in present day.

Our next stop was the Joliet Area Historical Museum where Greg, the Museum Director, gave us a tour of the place. We learned about Route 66, the history of Joliet, the construction of the canal, the infamous Joliet Prison, and John Houbolt. The museum does a wonderful job with the displays and information that visitors aren’t overwhelmed by one section. The second floor has large beautiful stained glass and overlooks the first floor. We had a great time at the museum and then eventually stayed in the lobby area for Internet until they closed.

Joliet was the most populated area we’ve stopped at since the start of our trip on the Des Plaines River. Our arrival there was filled with excitement for Internet access and exploring. Our struggle with finding good Internet access provided us with hindsight into the future regarding uploading and blogging. We enjoyed our time in Joliet and if one of us ever plans on driving Route 66, we’ll stop by the city again and remember our Paddle Forward time there.