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Current sewage drain was a stockyards waterway bubbling with rotting animal entrails, and some see it as a wetland with walking trails

By MARK GUARINO | Special to the Chicago Tribune

April 22, 2009

In the 1906 novel "The Jungle" that documents the perils of Chicago's Union Stock Yards, Upton Sinclair famously called a waterway in Bridgeport "a great open sewer." He was not far off.

Thirty-eight years after the stockyards closed, the days when a foul odor fills the air or bubbles ripple across the creek's surface are reminders that Bubbly Creek used to serve as a repository for stockyard waste—animal entrails and blood scraped off the killing floor.

"It's stinky, bubbling, unattractive and physically out of reach to most people," said Donald Hey, executive director of the Wetlands Initiative, a non-profit advocacy group.

Still environmental advocates like Hey say the site can be restored and are pushing for part of it to be transformed into wetlands, complete with public walkways and trails.

"It could be a dynamite place," he said.

His vision of the waterway's potential is shared by Mayor Richard Daley, who in 2007 backed the city covering half of the estimated $2.7 million cost of a detailed five-year feasibility study on restoring the waterway. It's part of the mayor's larger effort to improve and reclaim the waterfront.

But Richard Lanyon, executive director of the Metropolitan Water Reclamation District of Greater Chicago, said turning Bubbly Creek, which was created and continues as a sewage drain, into strictly a nature area is unrealistic.

"There's simply no other place in the city where you have a mile and a quarter of creek whose sole purpose in life is to be conveyance for combined sewer overflow," Lanyon said. "That pumping station drains a larger portion of the South Side. It's a vital facility to provide drainage. [Otherwise] you'd have thousands of homes flooded out."

Lanyon said improving the water quality is the best that can be done. Even then, it would be flushed out because the Racine station pumps sewage overflow from the Stickney plant on the West Side into Bubbly Creek after each rainstorm, he said.

"You have to have some way of putting oxygen back into the water after the pumping event," he said.

The Army Corps of Engineers is moving forward in its efforts to determine a practical use of the waterway. The agency is analyzing tests and drafting computer models of possible restoration, said Dave Bucaro, chief of economic formulation and analysis section for the Army Corps.

"Typically the Corps does not get involved unless the project is on a larger scale. In terms of the complex nature of degradation, Bubbly Creek is up there," said Bucaro.

"As tinkered with and as impaired as Bubbly Creek is, it's exciting from an engineer's view and a planner's view to come up with a practical and justifiable solution," he said.

Among the many possibilities being considered to restore Bubbly Creek, which runs 1.25 miles off the South Branch of the Chicago River, is "active capping" that will seal the sediment pollution at the bottom and strip biogenic bubbles of contaminants before they infiltrate the water, said Karl Rockne, associate professor of environmental engineering at the University of Illinois at Chicago. By not dredging up the sludge, there is a lesser chance of its toxins polluting the air, plus the burial negates having to find a site to deposit the waste.

"It is important to realize that the sediments in place already present a significant public health hazard," said Rockne, who serves on the city's Bubbly Creek Task Force. "[Active capping] can be done, but it will be challenging."

Bucaro said a final decision on how to restore the waterway will likely be made in summer 2010.

The city is "viewing this area and cleaning up rivers in the city as a high priority … so the political and the social interest is there, where in the past it really wasn't," Bucaro said. The cost of the feasibility study is being shared 50-50 between Chicago and the federal government, he said.

Department of Environment Commissioner Suzanne Malec-McKenna said Bubbly Creek is part of Daley's current environmental agenda that considers Chicago's waterways "a second shoreline." She added that Hurricane Katrina drained federal funding from the Corps so it wasn't until recently that the agency could make it a priority.

"There's a tremendous amount of opportunity to re-look at our rivers as the incredible asset that they are," said Malec-McKenna. "Now that the area has more residential development, the more that we can provide access to sites like [Bubbly Creek], the more we can rethink and rebuild industrial sectors of the city."

Other land dealings in Bridgeport have not been without controversy. In 2004, the city paid $1.2 million to Daley ally Thomas DiPiazza and a partner for a piece of contaminated land that DiPiazza had bought for $50,000 in 1998. The city plans to turn the 1.8-acre site into a riverfront park.

No matter the outcome, for some longtime Bridgeport residents, Bubbly Creek is likely to remain a throwback to the neighborhood's past, even if they often forget it's there.

"Out of sight, out of mind — you never see it," said Jay Schaller, whose family owns Schaller's Pump.

For others, like Alisa Gonzalez, a bartender at the Bridgeport Inn, the waterway is emblematic of the neighborhood's unyielding character.

"It's always been there."

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