Chicagoans Will Fish, Contamination or Not



Editor’s Note: The following story was written by a student in our Eco Youth Reporters program, conducted in conjunction with award-winning journalist Kari Lydersen, Michigan State University’s Knight Center for Environmental Journalism, and Imagine Englewood If, a youth services organization based in that South Side neighborhood. The Eco Youth Reporters program is generously funded by the McCormick Foundation:

Contaminated fish, sediment and water can be dangerous to one’s health but that doesn’t keep hungry Chicagoans away from the water at Canal Park and the Canal Port River Walk on Ashland Avenue south of Cermak Avenue in the Pilsen neighborhood.

In years past, factories and slaughterhouses used to dump waste in the Chicago River and the canals which connect to it. That contaminated the water and the fish. Pilsen’s coal plant, Fisk, contributes contamination to the water also. It releases lead, mercury, and other contaminants into the air which fall into the river.

Since President Richard Nixon signed the Clean Water Act and Clean Air Act in the early 1970s, factories can’t dump waste right into the river and there are limits on what plants and factories can emit into the air. But there is still a strong possibility of water contamination in the Chicago River because the City of Chicago discharges its sewage into the river, about 1.2 billion gallons every day. The sewage and other industrial waste is only partially treated. Starting in 2014, it will be disinfected to kill viruses and bacteria but right now, that is not done. In 2011, the national group American Rivers named the Chicago River one of the country’s 10 Most Endangered Rivers.

And yet people still fish there. We visited the area where the Chicago River meets the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal at Canal Park on a muggy afternoon in early August. Near a grove of huge trees, I met Scott, a 34-year-old man who asked his last name not be used and who regularly fishes in the shallow, calm water flowing through this spot. I asked him some questions about river contamination and previous factory dumps.

“I’m not for sure if it’s contaminated but I love coming here for the scenery and I love fishing,” said Scott.

Jaylen Miller and Tyreshia Black interviewing fishermen on the Chicago River. Photo by Kari Lydersen.

Scott spends about 30 minutes to four hours fishing on the river and sometimes he eats the fish. When he catches small fish, he uses those as bait for the bigger ones he hopes to catch.

A lot of people are not sure if the river is still contaminated but they are willing to take their chances.

“I eat the fish and I’m still here, so it’s not really a problem to me,” said Scott.

It also did not seem like a problem to Sheila Jackson, who fished at the Canalport River Walk along the Chicago Sanitary and Ship Canal.

“I fish here every day and I always eat the fish that I catch,” said Jackson. “I think the water is contaminated because the water destroyed my bait. It made the bait swell and get fluffy but I kept fishing.”

For people who don’t want to fish in the Chicago River, Henry C. Palmisano Park in Bridgeport offers another option.

Four hundred million years ago, limestone began to form in the Silurian reef in what is now the near South Side of Chicago, according to a plaque at the park. Stearns Quarry was created to mine this limestone, operating from the 1830s to 1970s. After the quarry closed, the big hole it left was used as a landfill, full of toxins and garbage.

Now it’s a 27-acre park with a deep pond stocked with fish. The pond is formed by the old quarry, with steep rock walls rising dramatically from the water.

Throughout the park there are native plants with roots that absorb enough water to sustain them during droughts – like the one this summer – that kill off many non-native plants. The park channels rain water from surrounding streets through a wetland that helps filter and clean it, before running into the pond.

The park is now a beautiful scene that lies upon a hill – the former landfill, which has been capped to protect people from the toxins inside. People come there to walk with their loved ones, relax and exercise. A lot of kids come to play on the pond – like 10-year-old John Legan.

“I started coming here in the winter when the pond was hard and frozen but now I usually just play on the hills with my friends,” said Legan.

Just like Scott and Jackson, Legan also knew the history of the landfill and nearby factories.

“I don’t think the factories were safe because it could kill half of the fish and I don’t imagine the big hill ever being a landfill because that’s disgusting!” said Legan.

The pond has several fish, a couple of turtles and Legan mentioned even seeing a crab!

Chicago citizens may or may not know what they’re getting into as far as health risks but they continue to fish in Chicago waters and even eat their catch because they simply enjoy it. This is even more reason to continue cleaning up the Chicago environment.

Barges of coal and partially treated sewage on the Sanitary and Ship Canal in Chicago. Photo by Tyreshia Black.

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