Rough Waters Ahead: Cleaning Up Toxic Pollution Hotspots to Restore the Great Lakes

In the 1980s, the EPA recommended that fishermen avoid eating any fish caught in Waukegan Harbor, just north of Chicago, to avoid exposure to toxic PCBs. The PCB contamination of Waukegan Harbor created what the EPA identified in 1981 as the “highest known concentrations of uncontrolled PCBs in the country.” Since then, EPA-funded cleanup efforts in Waukegan Harbor have removed PCB-contaminated sediment and fish are safe to consume, in limited quantities.

Katherine Eshel

Policy Analyst

Our new report series, Rough Waters Ahead, written with Environment America Research & Policy Center, tells the story of the EPA’s work to protect and restore our nation’s great waterways – including the Delaware River Basin, the Great Lakes and Puget Sound – and how the Trump administration’s proposed budget would affect them. Our previous post described how an EPA grant program has helped address the threat of abandoned mines in the Delaware River Basin. In this post, we bring you a story of how an EPA-led initiative cleaned up a toxic pollution hotspot in the Great Lakes.

In the 1980s, the EPA closed the beaches and recommended that fishermen avoid eating any fish caught in Waukegan Harbor, just north of Chicago, to avoid exposure to toxic PCBs, synthetic compounds that were banned in the U.S. in 1979. PCBs, still found in transformers or old appliances, can cause acne, liver damage and even cancer in adults, and lead to lasting damage on children’s brains, immune systems and behavior. The PCB contamination of Waukegan Harbor came from hydraulic fluid used by the now-bankrupt Outboard Marine Corporation, creating what the EPA identified in 1981 as the “highest known concentrations of uncontrolled PCBs in the country.”

In 1993, the EPA began dredging Waukegan Harbor to remove sediment contaminated with PCBs, cleaning the groundwater and soil, and disposing of industrial contaminants. In 2011, pollution had dropped enough that the EPA lifted the beach closings, and in 2013 the agency concluded that dredging had successfully reduced PCB levels in harbor sediment to levels that mean most fish are safe to eat. In 2014, after a 30-year, $150 million cleanup effort, the EPA concluded that Waukegan Harbor could be considered for removal from the list of Great Lakes’ most contaminated sites, known as Areas of Concern, a move hailed as pivotal to local efforts to revitalize the Waukegan waterfront. Today in Waukegan Harbor, fishermen are allowed to consume the sunfish, mullets, rock bass and black bullhead they catch – though they are still recommended to limit their consumption to avoid any risk to health.

Waukegan Harbor was one of many areas in Lake Michigan and the Great Lakes to be polluted by decades of industrial activity. Since 2000, the EPA has removed more than 1,000 Olympic swimming pools’ worth of contaminated sediment from 31 especially polluted areas within the Great Lakes. This cleanup work is supported by $338 million in federal funding and an additional $227 million from nonfederal sponsors. The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, started in 2010, has accelerated these cleanup efforts, granting the EPA an additional $246 million between 2010 and 2016 to support 88 projects focused on cleaning up particularly polluted areas. 

The Trump administration’s proposed budget would zero out funding for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, cutting at least 7 staff members solely dedicated to the initiative and axing funding for hotspot cleanups, measures to prevent Asian carp from invading the Great Lakes, and numerous other measures to clean up the Great Lakes.

Figure: Great Lakes Hotspots that Remain to Be Cleaned Up as of FY15 Indicated by Black Circles Below

Credit: Great Lakes Restoration Initiative 2014.

This is just one story of how the EPA has worked to protect and restore the Great Lakes. Our report, Rough Waters Ahead: The Impact of the Trump Administration’s EPA Budget Cuts on the Great Lakes, illustrates the EPA’s work with seven additional case studies, and shows that now is not the time to hobble the EPA’s essential work to protect clean waterways. Beach closures in Lake Erie due to harmful algal blooms, the risk of an Asian carp invasion, and ongoing cleanups at 27 contamination hotspots show that we still have work to do in cleaning up the Great Lakes. Budget cuts will put the EPA’s protection, enforcement, restoration, research and education work in danger – threatening the future health of the Great Lakes.

The Great Lakes are critical to the health and welfare of our families, our communities, and wildlife. For 40 years, EPA has been working to protect the Great Lakes and their watersheds from threats like industrial activity, agricultural pollution and urban runoff. Only a well-funded EPA can continue the legacy of progress in cleaning up the Great Lakes and ensure that it is healthy and safe for us and future generations to enjoy.


Katherine Eshel

Policy Analyst