Grand Calumet River: One of America’s Most Polluted Rivers

The Grand Calumet has long been known as one of the USA’s most polluted rivers with approximately 90% of the flow consists of industrial and municipal effluent. 
The river empties into Lake Michigan which supplies drinking water for 6.6 million people thus, posing a huge threat to their safety.

The river flows 13 miles long and originates from Miller Beach and empties around one billion gallons everyday into Lake Michigan.

The West and East Branch of the Grand Calumet River is located on either side of the Indiana Harbor Canal and while the East Branch drains entirely into Lake Michigan, the West Branch drains into the Illinois River.

Since the late 19th century, industrial effluents from industrialization have conquered the river as approximately 90% of the flow consists of industrial and municipal effluent.

As a result, the Grand Calumet River stands as one of the most polluted rivers in the USA and a portion of the River in Indiana has also been designated as 1 of the 43 sites of the Great Lakes Area of Concern.



Starting in the late 19th century, industrialization started in northwest Indiana and has had a profound impact on the Grand Calumet River. 

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Industrialization in East Chicago (Calumet Regional Archives)

The establishment of large steel and oil-refining companies by the Grand Calumet River in the early 1900s transformed the region into an urban center containing a population of 39,786 in East Chicago by the late 20th century. 

In 2017, Gary Works, one of the largest steel mills,  was the largest polluter in Indiana with the release of 25.2 million pounds of toxic chemicals. 

Most of the industrial and toxic waste released by factories was discharged into the Grand Calumet and accumulated into millions of cubic yards of contaminated muck in the river.

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Steel Mill at Gary Works (Good Free Photos)

By the mid-20th century, increasing levels of pollution in the Grand Calumet River resulted in contaminated sediment and toxic waste which not only harmed the ecosystem but also has the potential to danger human health through emissions in the air from toxic substances, such as PCBs, from the river. 

According to Hornbuckle’s study in 2011, the Indian Harbor and Canal, which connects the Grand Calumet River to Lake Michigan, emits annually around 15 pounds of PCBs into the air, which can have severe consequences to human health.


By the 20th century, fish populations virtually disappeared due to water contamination and more than half of the fish population that did survive contained “deformities, eroded fins, lesions and tumors.” 

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Dead fish in Grand Calumet River (NWI Times)

  • One in 10,000 fish within Indiana contained the same symptoms that existed in the majority of fish populations within the Grand Calumet River.
  • From the 1960s to the 1970s, the number of worms, many of which were sludge worms, increased from 20—108 oligochaetes per meter squared to 2400-500,000 per meter squared. This reflected the low dissolved oxygen levels, as well as the high levels of pollution present in the Grand Calumet River.
  • In the West Branch of the Grand Calumet River, average dissolved oxygen concentrations were 0.8 to 6.6 mg/L, which was significantly below the standards for dissolved oxygen concentrations in healthy water, which was generally any level above 6.5-8 mg/L.


Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1978,  the Grand Calumet River was named the only Area of Concern that contained all 14 Beneficial Uses Impairments.

From these 14 impairments of beneficial uses, the Grand Calumet River contained, to the largest extent, legacy pollutants found within the sediment in the riverbed that continues contaminating the water long after the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972.


Sedimentary contamination in the riverbed of the Grand Calumet River existed from toxic waste dumped into the river by factories prior to the Federal Water Pollution Control Act of 1972

Although the government placed restrictions on industrial effluents from factories and companies, contaminated sediment which is a legacy pollutant remains in the environment for a very long time and not only harms the ecosystem but can also pose a possibility in contaminating the water.

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Unsafe waters of the Grand Calumet River (Great Lakes Echo)

The contaminated sediment at the bottom of the Grand Calumet and the ship canal includes 100,000 pounds of lead, 67,000 pounds of chromium, and 420 pounds of PCBs (chlorine and benzene chemicals) that are extremely toxic to wildlife and humans.

A 2000 study prepared for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service found serious concerns and impacts from contaminated sediment in the Grand Calumet.


Stormwater runoff and leachate from 11 of 38 waste disposal and storage sites located within 0.2 miles (300 m) of the river are also degrading the water quality. 

Contaminants from industrial runoff that pollute the water include oil, heavy metals, PCBs, cyanides, arsenic, lead, and PAHs.

The Regulations by the Stream Pollution Control Board deemed the maximum levels for cyanide in the Grand Calumet River to be 0.1 mg/liter of water.

However, industrial runoff, along with the improper discharge of pollutants caused the river to exceed the regulations for maximum levels of cyanide.

Not only does runoff from industrial sites contribute to water contamination but also runoff from the urbanized areas which wash away many toxic organics and plastic, that end up polluting the river.


Combined sewer overflows from sewage treatment plants such as Gary, East Chicago, and Hammod also contributes to the contamination in the water through the flushing of high amounts of bacteria from fecal matter in sewers. 

Annually, 15 combined sewer overflow points contribute to waste and pollution into the Grand Calumet River.

For instance, in 2003, the Chicago-based Calumet Plant reported at least 8 sewer overflows which flowed into nearby rivers and released toxic waste and substances into the river.

Regulations by the Stream Pollution Control Board deemed the maximum levels for ammonia nitrogen in the Grand Calumet River to be 1.5 mg/litre of water. However, combined sewer overflows, as well as the improper discharge of pollutants, caused the river to exceed permitted levels for ammonia nitrogen. 


Since the Grand Calumet river empties into Lake Michigan, fecal coliform contamination from the Grand Calumet River flows into Lake Michigan and results in the growing abundance of toxic algal blooms within the Lake.

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Toxins from the Grand Calumet River flows into Lake Michigan (WBEZ Chicago)

Annually, around 57% of the combined sewer overflows in the Grand Calumet River is discharged into Lake Michigan. 

Due to the nearly 6.6 million people that drink from Lake Michigan, combined sewer overflows pose a huge threat to human safety because of the contamination it brings into Lake Michigan.


Although groundwater accounts for less than 10% of the flow of the Grand Calumet River, it still contributes to the growing amount of pollution within its premises. 

Ground-water-quality data were obtained through water samples from 485 wells, in which 9,405 contaminants of concern were detected. These contaminants of concern include substances such as lead and arsenic which may cause ecological and human health effects.

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Contaminated water flows to Grand Calumet River and Lake Michigan (News21)

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates that at least 16.8 million US gallons (64,000 m3) of oil float on top of groundwater beneath the area of concern.

Groundwater contamination of organic compounds and other toxic substances contribute to surface water pollution within the Grand Calumet River.


  • Changes from new water permits approved by the EPA allowed for a 54% increase of ammonia levels and 35% increase of suspended solids discharged into the lake by a nearby BP refinery.
  • New proposed water permit will relax or omit limits on toxic substances, such as chromium, dumped into the river by Gary Works.
  • The average allowable amount of chromium discharged from one waste-water pipe into the Grand Calumet would increase by 62%, to 17,702 pounds a year, and the permit does not require U.S. Steel to curb discharges from other pipes.
  • Every five years under federal law, states are required to renew their water permits to align to the goal from the Clean Water Act of eliminating pollution.
  • Gary Works, one of the main polluters in the Indiana State, has been working under expired permits extended by state officials since the year 1994. Gary Works currently releases 2,800 pounds of oil and grease into the river everyday.


  • In 2016, the Great Lakes Legacy Act funded the removal of approximately 14,600 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the Grand Calumet River
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“Dredging during the GLLA Stateline Remedial Action project.” (EPA)

  • Habitat Restoration Project funded by Indiana Department of Environmental Management, the Nature Conservancy, GLRI, and the Lake County Parks and Recreation Department aims to restore at least 900 acres of habitats across 15 sites in Areas of Concern within the Grand Calumet River
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Mapping of the Habitat Restoration Project (Indiana Department of Environmental Management)

As a result of these remediation projects by environmental organizations, two Beneficial Use Impairments, “Restrictions on Drinking Water Consumption, or Taste and Odor Problems” and “Added Costs to Industry or Agriculture” were removed.


The lack of awareness due to the location of the Grand Calumet River is one of the leading causes to fewer community initiatives. 

The Grand Calumet Taskforce, an organization formed by groups of Northwest Indiana residents, have worked towards advocating and raising public awareness of the environment through community meetings and cleanups, river festivals, educational events, and protest marches. 

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Grand Calumet Task Force (

By involving the community and other agencies, the Grand Calumet Task Force managed to clean and restore approximately 10 miles of the Grand Calumet River and successfully advocate for the removal of pollution within the river before disbanding a few years ago.


While Sediment Remediation Projects did benefit the environment significantly, however, failure to include strict limits on the discharge of toxic chemicals by Indiana regulators continue to contribute to pollution present within the Grand Calumet River. 

Lack of standards for companies such as Gary Works and BP continue to contribute to increasing amounts of pollution within the Grand Calumet River.

Annually, 1 million pounds of pollution from pipes still continue to flow into the Grand Calumet River and contribute to the existing pollution present within the river.


The solution to reducing the waste and pollution present within the Grand Calumet river calls for a circular economy. 

The main source of pollution from the Grand Calumet River is the legacy pollutants present within the sediment, as well as the continued industrial discharges into the river.

Utilizing a circular economy along with stricter policies on industrial discharges can prove beneficial towards reducing the amount of pollution swept into the river.


Industrial plants are the main source of pollution within the Grand Calumet River. By encouraging industrial plants to follow a circular economy through adopting solutions such as those listed below, industrial plants can reuse waste as a source of energy in order to reduce the amount discharged into the river.

  • Waste hierarchy: Hierarchy that ranks various management strategies and places emphasis on reducing, reusing, and recycling waste.
  • Waste to energy initiative: Processing waste into a fuel source/a form of energy recovery
  • Anaerobic digestion of biodegradable waste: Broken down of organic matter process to produce biogas 


To eliminate waste discharged into the Grand Calumet River calls for not only action by the administration and industries but also action from the community to unite under a single cause of improving their local ecosystem and protecting their river.

  • Establishing local events, campaigns, and school programs, awareness of the Grand Calumet River and the need for circular economies.
  • Prompting more people, especially local residents, to take action for their future through individual actions, such as recycling instead of disposal, and group actions, such as petitioning for stricter policies on industrial plants.
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Mula Mutha River in Pune, India Cleanup (Earth5R)

Efforts by Earth5R to raise awareness of pollution with local residents, such as the cleanups done in Mula Mutha River, Mumbai Mithi River, Yamuna River, as well as the Citizen Awareness Program at Pune and the Ganga River in Varanasi India, have already proven useful in encouraging action from local residents towards incorporating circular economy solutions to improve their precious rivers.

Reach out to Earth5R to know more about solving environmental issues by creating circular economy based sustainability projects.


Earth5R is an environmental organization from India with its head office at Mumbai. It works with the NGO sector, Companies and helps them conduct environmental corporate social responsibility (CSR) programs across India. Earth5R specializes in circular economy based projects. Earth5R also offers short term and long term environmental courses.

Earth5R’s Global Sustainability Hub is a cross-sector and cross-country collaboration in pursuit of UN Sustainable Development Goals. It is an excellent opportunity for governments and the private sector to engage with communities, use Sustainability-based models to drive economic changes, and create social and environmental impact.

Reported by Claire Hsu, edited by Shafa Azzahra

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