Harbor History

A Short Waukegan Harbor History

Waukegan Harbor has a short but eventful history that reflects and has influenced the destiny of the city in which it is located. It’s evolution mirrors the evolution of not just Waukegan but also the nation; from rapid industrialization, then a steady de-industrialization, a recognition of the  challenging environmental legacy that industries left behind, to an opportunity to act as stewards of the unique  natural resource that is the Waukegan Lakefront.

  • In 1850, the little community of Waukegan began negotiations with the State of Illinois and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (Army Corps) to build a small commercial harbor off the Lake Michigan shore of Waukegan.
    Waukegan circa 1861
    • The construction of the artificial harbor was somewhat unusual in the Great Lakes Basin because no significant stream or river flows into the harbor.
  • To the south, the city of Chicago was fast becoming the transport center of the nation sending manufactured goods and materials to the east coast, the southern states of the United States, and the newly opened west.
  • As the population of Chicago expanded northward, to support the growth, so did the need for manufacturing and distribution sites.
  • By 1890 a vibrant, varied, and skilled labor force was producing a sound multifaceted economic base for the Waukegan area, which was connected to Chicago by both rail and lake shipping.
    • Industries used the common manufacturing practices of their day to produce steel, barbed wire, leather, concrete light poles, refined sugar, motors, etc.
  • The harbor was further developed and expanded to meet the growing demand for goods transport in the 1890’s.  The industrial site grew and expanded into the early 1960’s.
    • Unfortunately, some of the common manufacturing practices in place during that time had an adverse impact on the environment and, as was subsequently discovered, would  prevent the community from enjoying the full potential of the natural resources available at the Waukegan lake front.
  • In 1981, The Outboard Marine Corporation plant site and the Waukegan Harbor were designated as a Superfund site (See Superfund Process)
  • The Army Corps was responsible for maintaining the Federal Channel (See Maps and Diagrams) in the harbor.  Due to one hundred years of accumulations of heavy metals, and later Polychlorinated Biphenyls (PCBs), the Army Corps was not been able to carry out the maintenance (navigational) dredging due to sediment contamination.  Waukegan Harbor was not alone in experiencing these problems, which occurred in harbors and river ways throughout the Great Lakes.
  • In the 1980’s the International Joint Commission (IJC) undertook the task of identifying the major sources of pollution affecting the Great Lakes. Forty-three (43) major Areas of Concern* (AOC) (See Map) were identified within Great Lakes watershed. *(What is an AOC how has the program addressed contamination in the Great Lake basin? View a short video – AOC 101 – created by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources)
  • Waukegan Harbor was identified as one of the 43 AOCs. (See Maps and Diagrams)
  • Six (6) beneficial use impairments (BUIs) were identified in the Waukegan Harbor AOC. They included;
    • Beach closures
    • Restrictions in dredging activities
    • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
    • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat
    • Benthos degradation
    • Degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton
  • In 1990, under the guidelines set down by the IJC, the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) helped to form the Waukegan Harbor Citizens’ Advisory Group (Waukegan Harbor CAG).  It was structured to include corporate, governmental, shipping, environmental and public representatives.
  • The Waukegan Harbor CAG has 34 member organizations, 17 associate member organizations, plus private citizens and others who attend Waukegan Harbor CAG meetings just to stay well informed on the various cleanup activities in progress within the  Waukegan AOC.
  • Under the guidance of the Illinois Environmental Protection Agency (IEPA) the Waukegan Harbor CAG progressed through the three (3) investigation and analysis study stages required by the IJC.
  • Dredging was identified as the most effective means of removing PCBs from the harbor. The first environmental dredge, funded by Outboard Marine Corporation (OMC), was completed in 1993. At that time, it was believed the  majority of the PCBs within the actual harbor sediment were removed.
  • The harbor specific fish consumption advisory was lifted in February of 1997, however monitoring of the harbor fish continued on an annual basis.
  • In 2006, a new harbor specific fish consumption advisory was issued because PCB concentrations were found to have increased in fish samples taken from the harbor. At that time, it was recognized that a second (2nd) environmental dredge was necessary to reduce the level of PCBs remaining in the sediments of the harbor.
    • See the AOC Repository for information about how to view the studies and other documents related to the remediation of the contaminates.
  • However work continuing on the goal of removing the BUIs from the AOC and during 2011 the first (1st) BUI, Beach closings was removed from the list of BUIs in the Waukegan AOC.
  • On September 26th, 2012 the final environmental dredge began. (See Maps and Diagrams)
  • The dredge was completed on July 8th,  2013 .  The dredging removed 124,244 cubic yards of contaminated sediment. The goal was to reduce the concentration of PCBs in harbor bottom sediments to 0.20 ppm or less.
  • Navigational dredging of the harbor, utilizing Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) funding on USEPA’s Superfund contract, was initiated on July 8th. The objective of the work was to dredge to a depth of 18 feet in the navigational channel of the entrance channel and inner harbor areas.
  • In 2013 the second (2nd) BUI, loss of fish and wildlife habitat was also removed from the AOC.
  • In 2014 the third (3rd) BUI, Restriction on dredging activities, was removed from the AOC. This was an important milestone for harbor industries and recreational boating interests because it now meant that the harbor could be dredged to its full navigational depth and boats and ships could safely enter and leave. It also allowed commercial ships to do so fully loaded with cargo.
  • During December 2017, the fourth (4th) BUI, benthos degradation, was officially removed from the Waukegan Harbor AOC and Extended Area of Concern.  As of January 2018, two (2) BUIs, restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption and degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton remain but are under investigation for delisting.