Mud to Parks project reuses lost soil from lakes and rivers

By Lisa Sheppard

With one fresh idea and buy-in from state politicians and organizations, researchers in the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center (ISTC) found a way to address the growing river sedimentation problem in Illinois, while also restoring waterways and habitat and moving healthy topsoil into cities.

The ISTC Mud to Parks project developed a blueprint for successfully recapturing one of Illinois’ finest resources: its soil.

“Soil is more valuable than oil,” said John Marlin, ISTC research affiliate, who originated the Mud to Parks idea and directed the project. “Yet we are treating soil today like it’s an unlimited resource, even as it erodes away.”

A crane removes sediment from Lower Peoria Lake during spring 2004. The dredging deepened a recreational boat channel at East Peoria. Care was taken to minimize water to reduce shipping costs. The barges traveled 165 miles to Chicago and were unloaded into trucks at the old US Steel South Works site.
A crane removes sediment from Lower Peoria Lake during spring 2004. The dredging deepened a recreational boat channel at East Peoria. Care was taken to minimize water to reduce shipping costs. The barges traveled 165 miles to Chicago and were unloaded into trucks at the old US Steel South Works site.

 

 

Trucks place the dredged material on a slag covered field that had no topsoil. It was spread to dry and temporarily seeded with grass.
Trucks place the dredged material on a slag covered field that had no topsoil. It was spread to dry and temporarily seeded with grass.

Soil from rural and urban areas washes into rivers and accumulates in backwaters and behind dams. Water levels in backwaters and side channels are becoming shallower as habitats deteriorate and areas can no longer be used for transportation and recreation. In the Illinois River’s Peoria Lake, levels have declined from 6 to 8 feet in the 1960s to 2 feet in recent years.

ISTC initiated a pilot project in 2004 after Marlin considered the sediment problem in Peoria Lake.  Sediment storage areas were scarce in Peoria, but the material could be deposited on a 500-acre U.S. Steel South Works redevelopment site to create a park.

“Engineers told me that it couldn’t be done,” Marlin said. “It would be too expensive to truck sediment 165 miles from Peoria to Chicago. It occurred to me that barges could be loaded directly from the lake, and using the river system, we could take the barges right to the site, which borders Lake Michigan.”

Most sediment was easily handled by trucks and bulldozers, although some was sticky and did not flow smoothly.
Most sediment was easily handled by trucks and bulldozers, although some was sticky and did not flow smoothly.
During the summer of 2004, botanists from the Illinois Natural History Survey identified plants growing in the placed sediment to determine if any non-native (invasive) species had been transported. The plants were all common to Illinois.
During the summer of 2004, botanists from the Illinois Natural History Survey identified plants growing in the placed sediment to determine if any non-native (invasive) species had been transported. The plants were all common to Illinois.

But first, many agencies and organizations had to come on board. At that time, Lt. Governor Pat Quinn coordinated their participation in an “unbelievable political operation,” Marlin said. Representatives and senators from the Democratic and Republican parties supported the project, along with the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, ISTC, the Illinois State Water Survey, the City of Chicago, the Chicago Park District, the City of East Peoria, and others.

Barges transported more than 80 loads of sediment to the Chicago site that summer. Once the sediment was removed from the barges, it was spread by bulldozer over 15 acres “like icing on a cake,” Marlin said. Over the winter, the sediment weathered to become loose soil, and eventually was used to plant grass, prairie vegetation and trees.

Two of the biggest advantages of the Mud to Parks initiative are the ability to help restore the aquatic habitat in Peoria Lake and to reclaim the sediment for use at restoration and construction sites.  This prevents native soil from being taken from farmland and suburban developments for new projects.

“This project provided a way to take Illinois soil that was washed off the land through erosion and reuse the soil by putting it back on the land,” Marlin said. “Once the sediment is washed into the Gulf of Mexico, it’s gone.”

Dr. Robert Darmody, a soil scientist at the University of Illinois, inspects sediment derived topsoil one year after removal from the lake.
Dr. Robert Darmody, a soil scientist at the University of Illinois, inspects sediment derived topsoil one year after removal from the lake.
Grass covered the sediment on the slag field by 2005. This 2013 photo shows grass and prairie plants thriving. This site, located at the end of 87th St. on Lake Michigan, also supports trees and paths in what is now called Steelworkers Park.
Grass covered the sediment on the slag field by 2005. This 2013 photo shows grass and prairie plants thriving. This site, located at the end of 87th St. on Lake Michigan, also supports trees and paths in what is now called Steelworkers Park.

The process that was developed through the Mud to Parks project proved to be successful, but also difficult to continue. There needs to be a dredging project at one end of the journey and both an operation and a space to place and reuse the sediment at the other end.  If commercial operations coordinated efforts to transport the sediment using barges and stockpile and dry the sediment-derived topsoil, they could mix in biosolids or compost for added nutrients if desired, then sell the topsoil at a profit, particularly in Chicago and St. Louis, where topsoil is expensive.

Mud to Parks project details are available in the ISTC Technical Report 068, Beneficial Use of Illinois River for Agricultural and Landscaping Applications and on the ISTC web site.

 

Chemical recycling may offer help on e-plastics

This article in E-Scrap News summarizes Closed Loop Partners market-landscape report, which was released last month. The report included work by ISTC researchers B.K. Sharma and Sriraam Chandrasekaran. The article specifically mentions ISTC’s work on solvent and pyrolysis systems that target e-plastics for chemical recycling feedstock.

Read more about Sharma’s and Chandrasekaran’s work on e-plastics recycling in this article from the University of Illinois News Bureau and on ISTC’s web site.

Meet Vidya Balasubramanyam

Vidya Balasubramanyam recently joined the Coastal Management Program as their Coastal Outreach and Engagement Specialist. Vidya will be providing support for the Sand Management Working Group, as well as visiting and learning about the Illinois shoreline, meeting partners, and attending meetings to absorb information on the projects and activities taking place across the coastal watershed.

How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?

I was a toddler when I first became interested in science. Both my parents are scientists—my mom likes to tell stories about how she used to read these large sized medical textbooks to prep for her qualifying exams, and I used to copy her by picking up the same books and pretending to peruse them (but of course, my toddler hands held them upside down!). My parents used to travel frequently to scientific conferences and take me with them. I remember watching them develop their presentation slides, practice in the hotel room, and then deliver their talks at various venues. Observing them as a four-year old, my most-used phrase became “Next slide please!”

At the same time I recognize that a lot of (first generation) scientists do not have the privilege of literally being raised to be scientists. I have a lot of appreciation for them and hope to be able to mentor more first generation scientists to pay it forward.

Who or what drew you to your field of study?

My initial interest in a coastal career came from an unlikely source: a leaky water tank in my childhood home in Bangalore, India. I would spend entire afternoons sitting with a bucket, trying to capture every drop of precious drinking water that was getting wasted. At the time, I imagined myself as a plumber, conserving the limited fresh water by plugging leaky pipes. As I learned more about the environment, I realized that I could have a greater systemic impact if I worked on bigger picture environmental issues. When the 2006 tsunami struck the southeast coast of India, I was exposed to larger concepts like coastal hazards and shoreline vulnerability. I was terrified of the ocean (and still am), but I’m determined to do my part to help protect coastlines around the world.

What was your background before coming to work at ISTC?

Previously, I was a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Coastal Management Fellow with Tridec Technologies detailed at the New Hampshire Coastal Program where I worked on siting and socializing nature-based shoreline stabilization approaches in coastal New Hampshire and contributed to a variety of other projects that improved resilience to coastal hazards along the New Hampshire shoreline.

Before that, I attended the University of Missouri in Columbia, MO where I received my MS in Natural Resources with an emphasis in Human Dimensions and a graduate certificate in geographic information sciences. And before that I grew up in Bangalore, India where I received my BSc. in Environmental Science, Chemistry and Botany at St. Joseph’s College.

What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at ISTC?

I’m really excited to bring my creative thinking to the coastal hazards and climate adaptation work that I’ll be doing. I enjoy the process of brainstorming, problem-solving, and planning. Coastal erosion is a tricky problem that affects people and natural resources, and hence needs creative solutions grounded in science and supported by design thinking, systems thinking, and inclusive community involvement. I’m looking forward to synthesizing best practices from multiple disciplines and helping our communities come up with adaptation solutions that are equitable and effective.

I also enjoy public speaking and look forward to doing more of it. My favorite thing to do is story-boarding- I can spend hours creating and refining my science messages and crafting a compelling story. I enjoy designing interactive, eye-catching presentations and I’m always exploring new strategies to engage my audiences.

What are common misconceptions about your field?

A lot of people think coastal management specialists spend all their time on the water. This notion is dangerous because it actively discourages people with disabilities from applying to jobs in this field. While spending a lot of time in the water could hold true for some types of coastal scientists, a lot of my time is spent planning, managing projects, communicating and meeting with stakeholders. I occasionally go out into the field and really enjoy being out there, but I try to let people know that you don’t necessarily need to be an able-bodied individual to do this work. There is room for people of differing abilities to do great work and truly shine in coastal management.

What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?

The coastal adaptation field is new and doesn’t yet have a tried and tested career path. Most coastal adaptation professionals pretty much make it up as they go. When I first moved to the US as an international student, I was clear about my goals but was confused about how I can make inroads into this undefined (but exciting!) field with the added complications of visas, paperwork, and so on. But I was lucky enough to have found supportive mentors along the way and although my mentors did not know a lot about being an international student, they went out of their way to find and facilitate opportunities to help me achieve my career goals and I am so grateful to them! I also struggle with imposter syndrome but I recently stumbled across this amazingly insightful article which changed my perspective on it completely.

What do you wish more people understood about science or being a scientist?

I’m hoping people start being more open minded about what a scientist looks like. I’m often mistaken for a high school student and people have a hard time believing that I’m a scientist because media and mainstream public discourse characterizes scientists as old white men in lab coats. People also forget that a scientist doesn’t necessarily have to be someone with a PhD. Anyone who creates, uses, or translates science is a scientist! Undergraduate students who are studying science, technicians who are out in the field collecting data, science communication specialists who translate scientific information—they’re all scientists too!

Fortunately, there are incredibly cool projects out there like 1000 Women Scientists that are intended to change public perceptions of who is a scientist, what they look like, the range of different backgrounds they have, and the diverse suite of skills they use in their day-to-day work.

What advice would you give to future scientists?

To aspiring scientists in grade school: I want them to know that they don’t necessarily need to have good grades in math or physics or biology to be a scientist. What matters is having curiosity, persistence, and the ability to think creatively so that you can find answers to your questions.

For those in higher ed who are training in their respective scientific disciplines- my advice would be to think critically about power, privilege, and oppression in science and how that affects scientists and society. Each day I learn something new about how to center diversity, equity and inclusion in the way I conceptualize coastal science and implement solutions. I’m really grateful for the communities of practice that have shaped my thinking and encourage others to proactively cultivate similar networks that exposes them to people with situations, ideas, and backgrounds that are different from their own. Networks like these can go a long way in building your career and will enable you to pay it forward by helping those who don’t have as many resources to achieve their career goals.

What book did you read last (can be work-related or not)?

I recently finished reading the entire Crazy Rich Asians trilogy! I enjoyed the series immensely. It’s part-romantic comedy, part-satire with insightful and revealing societal commentary. It does two things simultaneously: challenges traditionally held stereotypes of south-east Asians, while also critiquing elitism, sexism, colorism, classism, fatphobia, and the income disparity that’s rampant in society. I learned so much about my own implicit biases while reading this book and can’t wait to do another re-read so I can unpack all of these themes some more!

Meet Joshua Cheng

Joshua Cheng recently joined ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program (TAP) team as a Sustainability Technician. Based in our Champaign office, he helps businesses and organizations implement sustainable practices.

How old were you when you first became interested in science? What sparked your interest?
As a kid, I loved to read science books and had the dream of becoming of a scientist or an inventor (not knowing what they really entail). And as I grew up and learned more about the different fields of science, I saw how engineering applies science to solve problems in our society. No matter what industry or field I eventually end up in, I know that data-based and evidence-driven critical thinking will lead to productive solutions!

Who or what drew you to your field of study?
I started off my college career as a chemical engineering major but found that my passion lies in communicating between scientific solutions and business minds. There has always been a gap in understanding between the engineers and the accountants, I believe industrial engineers could be the missing piece to that puzzle.

What was your background before coming to work at ISTC?
I recently graduated from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign as an industrial engineering major, and have worked as a consultant/project manager at a private equity firm. I also worked for the Residential Technology Services as an assistant coordinator throughout my undergraduate career, and interned with Express Scripts, a pharmaceutical company in St. Louis. I’m grateful to have experienced many different industries and I’m excited to contribute and learn as I work at ISTC!

What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at ISTC?
My new role at ISTC has been a refreshing experience, as everyone truly cares about the environment and has dedicate their career to sustainability. I look forward to spreading this message and help companies do the same!

 Any random facts you could share with us?
I was born in New York City, grew up in Hong Kong, went to high school in Chicago, and now love the prairies of Urbana-Champaign!

Job announcement: Visiting Assistant Scientist, Coastal Engagement and Project Manager

ISTC is  hiring a Visiting Assistant Scientist, Coastal Engagement and Project Manager to provide technical, leadership and project management support to the Illinois Department of Natural Resources Coastal Management Program (CMP).

Areas of work will include addressing coastal hazards and building community resilience, improving water quality and habitats, enhancing sustainable economic development, and coastal recreation.

The position will be based in our Chicago office. Closing date for applications is June 14.

To apply, visit https://go.illinois.edu/istcjobs.

Illinois Solar for All Program Launches

The Illinois Solar for All Program has officially opened for business. The goal of the program is to promote new solar projects serving low-income and environmental justice communities throughout Illinois. A key part of the program involves solar developers working with job training programs to expand the renewable energy workforce by including individuals who are or were foster children or persons with a record who are transitioning.

The program was created as part of the Future Energy Jobs Act, which was passed by the Illinois legislature in December 2016 to increase solar energy jobs and renewable development projects across Illinois. Funding for the first two years of the program is  $30 million per year, which will be used to purchase Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) from new low-income solar projects.

The Illinois Power Agency is implementing the program. It has hired Chicago-based Elevate Energy as the program administrator. The Illinois Solar for All Program has a number of sub-programs for low-income and environmental justice communities, including rooftop solar, community solar projects, and solar projects for non-profits and public facilities located in and serving those communities.

As a member of the Illinois Solar for All Working Group, ISTC collaborates with statewide and national stakeholders to develop and recommend best practices that will maximize benefits to economically disadvantaged households and communities that targeted programs are intended to serve.

Job announcement: ISTC and ISWS seeking Associate Research Scientist, Emerging Contaminants

ISTC and the Illinois State Water Survey are seeking an Associate Research Scientist, Emerging Contaminants to plan, conduct, supervise, and formulate collaborations on research on inorganic and organic pollutants, especially focusing on emerging contaminants (e.g., pharmaceuticals and personal care products, per- and poly-fluorinated chemicals, agriculture chemicals (P and N), microplastics, and other contaminants including lead) and excessive nutrients in groundwater, surface water, and wastewater.

Application deadline is June 15, 2019.

Visit http://go.illinois.edu/istcjobs for more information and to apply.

ISTC Technical Assistance Program helps Spraying Systems Co. communicate sustainability goals

ISTC’s Technical Assistance Program led a project at Spraying Systems Co. to help them define and communicate their sustainability goals using Global Reporting Initiative (GRI) Standards.

The project included determining the company’s materiality. This process involves engaging internal and external stakeholders to identify and determine the relative importance of economic, environmental and social issues that impact on the company’s business performance. They also analyzed the company’s metrics to comply with GRI standards and assisted them with compiling a sustainability report.

Some of the company’s initiatives include:

  • Purchasing raw materials with recycled material when possible
  • Water reuse in R&D processes
  • Recycling brass, steel, aluminum, plastic and paper
  • Bulk purchasing to reduce packaging waste
  • Composting in our cafeteria
  • Reducing electricity use for lighting through fixture and ballast upgrades and solar panel installation
  • Natural gas conservation through HVAC equipment and building upgrades
  • Health and wellness programs for our employees
  • Safety training and continuing education programs
  • Community outreach programs

The final report is GRI-Referenced, which means that the company used selected GRI Standards to report their economic, environmental and/or social impacts.

Read a summary of the report on the Spraying Systems web site. The full report is available from the company upon request.

If your company is interested in collaborating on a similar project, contact the Technical Assistance team.

New Illinois Sustainability Awards case study: Griffith Foods

ISTC’s latest case study features 2016 Illinois Sustainability Award winner Griffith Foods, a Alsip-headquartered manufacturer of seasonings, food textures and coatings, sauces, bakery and dough products, functional blends, and food safety solutions.

In 2015, the company conducted a materiality analysis to identify areas where they could make a positive impact on their triple bottom line — people, planet, and performance. They use this sustainability platform to drive their efforts within the company.

Some of the additional strategies they used to increase their efficiency and reduce their impact include:

  • Implemented sustainable supplier initiatives, which included a Supplier Sustainability Survey. The survey asked questions about avoiding slavery or child labor practices, discrimination, improve community involvement, ethics, favoring recycled materials, water conservation, reducing waste, energy and pollution, species sponsorship and charitable contributions. Suppliers receive a score based on their responses, which the company considers when making supplier decisions.
  • Launched a cafeteria recycling program with Aramark and Quincy Recycle.
  • Implemented ISO 14001 in all facilities.
  • Treats processed liquids at an on-site wastewater treatment plant, then sends it to the city for filtering and re-use. They truck the solids out of the plant and send them to be reused as farmland fertilizer.

Through these actions, Griffith Foods:

  • increased cafeteria recycling by 50%
  • funded 200,000 meals to combat hunger
  • diverted 1.3 million pounds of liquid waste from landfiils
  • reduced water use in sanitation by 537,000 gallons.

New E3 Success Story: Illinois Food Manufacturer

ISTC’s latest case study features an Illinois cannery that received an Economy, Energy, and Environment (E3) assessment. The parent company operates six manufacturing facilities. Their corporate headquarters has its own facility. Its products include both company branded and private labels with a wide variety of recipes. The Illinois site’s footprint is over 300,000 square feet and operates on a 24/4 schedule.  The E3 assessment evaluated the value stream from raw ingredient receiving through processing, canning, and labeling.

The assessment recommended nearly fifty best management practices that the company could use to save money and improve their efficiency. These included:

  • combined heat and power
  • renewable energy
  • controls and commissioning of electrical equipment
  • lighting upgrades to LED
  • variable frequency drives on process motors
  • compressed air system and steam distribution efficiencies
  • investigate aqueous ozone for sanitation
  • repair process water leaks
  • rainwater capture
  • installation of low flow devices in restrooms
  • recover recyclable materials

If the company implemented all of the recommendations, they could:

  • reduce electricity use by 7 million kWh and natural gas use by over 500,000 therms
  • conserve nearly 42 million gallons of water
  • reduce CO2 emissions by over 10,000 metric ton equivalents
  • save up to $1.2 million

The company has already fixed air leaks, which will reduce their yearly energy use by 168,000 kWh and save them over $15,000 annually. The site’s management team and corporate office are investigating other opportunities as well.