Bubbly Creek stretches south from its confluence with the South Branch of the Chicago River as seen from Canal Origins Park at 2701 S. Ashland Ave.

Bubbly Creek Cleanup Moves Forward with Corps Feasibility Study

Published April 8, 2020

Formal recommendations for the cleanup of Bubbly Creek put a nearly $18 million price tag on a process to restore the highly polluted waterway forming the border between the McKinley Park and Bridgeport neighborhoods of Chicago. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has released its Bubbly Creek Ecosystem Restoration Feasibility Study Final Report, which recommends capping the thick layer of chemical-laced sludge at the bottom of the channel and restoring native plants and animal habitats in the waterway.

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Bubbly Creek NER overview plan map 20200407A map of the approved Bubbly Creek restoration plan shows where new plants would be added after capping sediment on the bottom of the channel.Bubbly Creek, properly known as the South Fork of the South Branch of the Chicago River, has long been a subject of study for local environmental remediation. The Corps plan, conducted in cooperation with the City of Chicago, concludes a years-long process to examine the area; coordinate process and resources on local, state and federal levels; and consider several different courses of action to formally recommend the chosen National Ecosystem Restoration (NER) Plan.

As applied to Bubbly Creek, this would gradually spread layers of sand and rock in an attempt to cap the channel bottom with minimal disturbance to its sediment: a layer of toxic and inhospitable muck an average of 13 feet thick running through the entire waterway. Then, planting of naturally occurring vegetation along the riverside and in shallow water will be joined by the addition of underwater "woody debris" such as tree stumps and logs, with targeted end results to include cleaner water and a return of wildlife.

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In order for the plan to move forward, the U.S. Congress will need to authorize both funding for the project and legal coverage for the City of Chicago and the Corps, given the potential for liability tied to the project disturbing contaminated sediment. The public is being asked to provide comments, ideas and advocacy toward the project through May 6, 2020, by sending email to chicagodistrict.pao@usace.army.mil with the subject line of "ATTN: Bubbly Creek."

A History of Industrial Pollution

As immortalized in Upton Sinclair's foundational industrial-era novel The Jungle, Bubbly Creek was well-known as the drain for runoff from local industry and the slaughterhouses of the Chicago Stockyards, to the point where decomposing animal and other waste caused the channel to bubble. This bubbling still occurs today, sending chunks of bottom sludge floating to the water's surface before off-gassing and again sinking below.

Bubbly Creek Chicago Portage Historic MapAn historic map included in the Corps feasibility study shows the original course of Bubbly Creek and nearby waterways.From what was originally a prairie wetland, the South Fork was gradually filled in to its current terminus at West 38th Street and South Racine Avenue, the site of the Racine Avenue Pumping Station. This facility is joined by a number of other discharge points along Bubbly Creek for overflows of Chicago's combined stormwater-and-sewage sewers. However, the study notes how current and future capacity of Chicago's Deep Tunnel project reduces the amount of sewer discharge into Bubbly Creek and considers this as a factor in remediation efforts.

The Corps study integrated the results of a number of past studies of Bubbly Creek's sediment, which "are consistent across all sampling results," the study said. Although channel pollution was found to not be ignitable or exceed criteria for corrosion or toxicity, sampling did find elevated levels of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB), heavy metals and other pollutants.

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Project Funding and Implementation

In addition to serving as a near-canonical resource for environmental considerations tied to Bubbly Creek, the Corps plan outlines a comprehensive and detailed process for remediation of the waterway. The project requires coordination between multiple agencies and the City of Chicago, compliance with laws and environmental regulation, and inclusion of ongoing monitoring and maintenance of the waterway and habitat.

Bubbly Creek 35th Street Bridge Chicago 20200407The 35th Street bridge connects McKinley Park with Bridgeport across Bubbly Creek.The Corps study sets an estimated total project cost of $17,934,000, with 65 percent of the total to be paid by the federal government. The largest costs are tied to capping the bottom of the channel and installing plants and habitat.

A schedule for implementing the project posited construction contracts being awarded by December 2023, assuming congressional approval of the project. The targeted completion date for construction is January 2029, the study stated.

Restoration Benefits

The Corps study details the goals it hopes to achieve as tied to the benefits that restoration of Bubbly Creek would bring to the local area. This includes ecological considerations like adding to migratory bird habitat, as well as the economic and health benefits realized by nearby residents.  

"Once restored, Bubbly Creek would be an important resource within the City of Chicago's dense urban environment," the report stated. "Neighboring residents would greatly benefit from a restored natural space by providing educational and recreational opportunities for fishing, rowing, bird watching and enjoying nature in the middle of a highly urbanized and industrial area of Chicago."

The report also noted the City of Chicago's support for the study and how its recommendations align with "Chicago's Second Waterfront" plan to restore and improve access to the Chicago River.

More information about the project and proposal is available at the Bubbly Creek project page on the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Chicago District website.

Bubbly Creek Sediment US Army Corps Engineers Feasibility Study 202004Sediment floats to the surface of Bubbly Creek as shown in this photo from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers feasibility study for restoring the polluted waterway.

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