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Local boaters harbor hope about PCB testing

Local boaters harbor hope about PCB testing

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By Scott Sullivan

Editor

A Kalamazoo Lake sediment sampling conducted July 15-19 by Michigan Environmental, Great Lakes & Energy employees is being analyzed by the Great Lakes Research Institute with hope contaminants found will therein be few enough to make dredging more affordable and help “save the harbor.”

Such is the mantra of Tower Marine owner R.J. Peterson, 93, who has long called for finding affordable ways to maintain the waterway for boat usage.

Peterson, who is helping fund the study, has an obvious stake in its outcome. But he’s not alone here.

A 1996 study contracted through the JJR engineering firm of Ann Arbor by Douglas and Saugatuck cities called the harbor “the economic lifeblood of the community.” Boaters stay, eat, shop here and more.

The study also noted comprehensive dredging of the harbor — last done in 1936 by the federal government using spoils to create what is now the Blue Star Bridge causeway — might cost as much as $45 million.

Complicating that is the fact the Kalamazoo River, polluted with PCBs from paper mills upstream in Plainwell-Otsego and Kalamazoo, was declared a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Superfund site all the way downstream to Lake Michigan nearly 40 years ago.

Some cleanup — funded by potentially-responsible parties such as Georgia Pacific, which subsequently acquired the paper mill sites — has been undertaken near the pollution point sources, but has yet to come near where the current slows as the river banks widen in Kal Lake and drops silt here.

PCBs aren’t the only unwelcome chemicals in the water/sediment. Arsenic from fruit orchard spraying, phosphate from upstream farm runoff fertilizers, an assortment from other manufacturers … bear measuring too.

Contaminant concentration in the sediment has almost certainly declined since the EPA’s site designation, but has it been enough so dredged spoils from the harbor no longer by law must be hauled to and/or stored in an expensive contained facilities?

What is considered “clean” fill can be stored almost anywhere — witness the U.S Army Corps of Engineers this spring dredging the federal channel from near Coral Gables to the river mouth at Lake Michigan, then using spoils to “renourish” Saugatuck’s Oval Beach. Such fill can have enough value to be sold as well.

Record-high Great Lakes water levels in recent years have given Kal Lake boaters a reprieve even while causing flooding in town and myriad other issues.

But those levels have not stopped — in fact, they have hidden — the estimated annual 36,000 cubic yards (enough to cover a 100-yard football field four feet deep) from upstream dropped in Kal Lake each year.

What goes up (in this case, Great Lakes water levels) will go down eventually. Peterson more than most has seen and can attest to this. Unless dredged, those spoils filling up the lake’s bottom may surface as they did when lake levels were at record lows seven years ago. Boating might dry up accordingly as the lake reverts to a wetland.

GLRI director Bob Schuchman, who maintains a home in Saugatuck, said July’s sampling at test points from the I-196 bridge all the way north and west to Lake Michigan will likely reveal few to no PCBs in the sediment’s upper, more recently-dropped strata. “Hot points,” such as remain, stand to be more diffused and deeper.

The testing, part of a project through the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Waterways Grant Program, will build on PCB measurement efforts in 2000, 2012 and 2013.

Lake and river bottom sediments will be characterized in respect to presence of PCBs, metals, particle size and total organic carbon to a potential depth maximum of six feet, said Schuchman.

New data will support a larger study meant to help create a long-term strategy to maintain Kal Lake as a safe place for recreational boating.

Specifically, it will be used to:

  • Determine if any of the surface sediments (upper 2 inches) contains PCBs at a level of concern;
  • Compare new core data with historical surveys to quantify change from 2000 to the present;
  • Use the grain size analysis in a new fate and transport model to better understand areas of sediment deposit and erosion in the lake and river;
  • Use the sediment analysis of PCBs, metals and organic carbon as inputs into potential dredging scenarios; and
  • Use the composite data set (2000 to present) to better understand the redistribution if any of the PCBs contaminants.

“We expect to complete testing and analysis in September and report to the state and EPA after that,” Shuchman said.