One of the companies responsible for polluting 80 miles of the Kalamazoo River west through Saugatuck will pay at least $245.2 million to advance a cleanup effort that began more than 20 years ago.
NCR Corp., said federal officials last week, will fund dredging contaminated sediments and removing an aging dam under an agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Justice Department and State of Michigan.
The river is polluted with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), used for ink removal, from paper recycling mills, discharged into the river from the 1950s through the mid-1970s. The chemicals also seeped into ground- and surface waters from landfills where waste from the mills was dumped.
In addition to the river, the contamination zone in includes mill properties, riverbanks floodplains and a Portage Creek tributary. The stretch, which runs all the way west to the mouth of Lake Michigan, is on the federal Superfund list of hazardous sites.
The EPA has overseen removing close to 450,000 cubic yards of soil and sediment from it since 1998, but none from the Saugatuck-Douglas area. In addition it has cleaned up 7 miles of the river and riverbanks. Eighty-two acres of landfills have been covered with layers of clay, topsoil and vegetation to prevent PCBs from leaching into groundwater.
Much more needed, say officials. The Dec. 11 agreement calls for NCR to pay at least $135.7 million for cleanup work expected to take an additional 10 to 15 years.
One of those tasks is dismantling the Trowbridge Dam, built in 1898 to supply electric power to Kalamazoo. The structure, already in poor shape, now is over-topped by high water. It is the highest-priority dam removal planned in Michigan, according to the state Department of Natural Resources, which set aside $2.9 million in May to get the project underway.
Step one is to stabilize the dam so that it won’t collapse while a contractor dredges PCB-laced sediments from a 2.4-mile river section upstream. It is expected to take three years. NCR will pay for that work and razing the dam after sediment is removed.
The latter project, funded also under the deal, will take place in several floodplain spots.
NCR will pay $76.5 more million to the EPA for past and future costs of the river cleanup $27 million to other agencies for damages to natural resources and $6 million to the state for past and future costs.
The public will have until Jan. 10 to comment on the proposed agreement, after which the agencies can make revisions before seeking final court approval.
The settlement marks a milestone in the overall cleanup, which is expected to end up costing close to $850 million. Negotiations are continuing with other companies that share responsibility for the pollution, including Georgia-Pacific, International Paper and Weyerhaeuser.
The Kalamazoo River project is among those on the Superfund list designated by the Trump Administration for special attention due to past cleanup delays.
“This settlement represents substantial progress in the cleanup and restoration of the river,” said state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy director Liesl Clark.
In addition to protecting public health and the environment, Clark continued, the agreement will fund “projects to restore natural resources and help compensate the public for lost recreational opportunities within this important Southwest Michigan watershed.”
While “extremely welcome,” the deal won’t raise enough money to finish the cleanup and agencies should continue pressing the polluters to do more, said Kenneth Kornheiser, president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, a nonprofit advocacy group.
“I appreciate the monumental size of the problem, but somebody created it and needs to be responsible for remediating the damage,” he said.