Kalamazoo River fights to clean up pollution past and present

The Kalamazoo River has seen its share of problems. In the past, it was contaminated with chemical waste from the paper mills along its banks. More recently, it was damaged when an Enbridge pipeline burst and released oil into the river.

All of this has resulted in a river long-disconnected from the people living around it, according to Jamie McCarthy, Watershed Coordinator with the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council.

"People will say 'My grandpa always told me about the story where he would go fishing every weekend and the river was teeming with fish and you could see to the bottom of that river," she says. "It makes me realize that is has been a couple of generations since people remember the river being a great resource and a place to visit."

The mighty Kalamazoo

The Kalamazoo River
begins as a spring-fed pond in Hillsdale County, traveling 175 miles in a westerly direction before draining into Lake Michigan near the town of Saugatuck. The seventh-largest river in Michigan, it drains over 2,000 square miles of land area in southwest Michigan.

In 1987, the river entered into the USEPA's Area of Concern program due to historical releases of PCBs, which originated primarily from de-inking operations at local paper mills. The Kalamazoo River was also identified as a site of environmental contamination through Part 451 of the Michigan Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act and is included as a Superfund site.

“They’ve been making some excellent progress,” says John Riley, AOC coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. “Hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of contaminated sediment needs to be dealt with. The Superfund program is working systematically from upstream to downstream one section at a time. They have legal authorities and funding mechanisms in place to get that work done. Within the AOC program, we do what we can to supplement that.”

The KRWC functions as the Public Advisory Council for all matters related to the AOC. The organization deals with a wide variety of watershed issues ranging from contaminated sediments to aging dams to excessive nutrient inputs from land to water. 

McCarthy is pleased with the progress she sees on the river.

“The Kalamazoo River has a very long legacy of PCB-contaminated sediments,” she says. “In the last five years we’ve started to see more large-scale sediment cleanup activity, and it’s been an incredible catalyst for people in the community reclaiming the river. We see that in lots of new riverfront development that we haven’t seen for generations. It’s all possible because sediment remediation has happened, and we see revitalization because of it.”

The primary AOC work has focused on the removal of four dams, to which two beneficial use impairments (BUIs) are tied: Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Habitat and Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations.

The following is a complete list of the beneficial use impairments (BUIs) identified under the AOC program and the year in which two of them have been removed for the Kalamazoo River AOC:
  • Restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • Degradation of fish and wildlife populations
  • Beach closings – REMOVED 2011
  • Degradation of aesthetics – REMOVED 2012
  • Bird or animal deformities or reproduction problems
  • Degradation of benthos
  • Restriction on dredging activities
  • Loss of fish and wildlife habitat
The original Kalamazoo River AOC Remedial Action Plan (RAP), was completed in 1987 which outlined the severity of the pollution problems in the river and watershed.

Remedial work on the river began to take place between 1998 and 2006 when hundreds of thousands of tons of contaminated waste and sediments were removed from various parts of the AOC, including significant amounts of PCBs.

Since the release of the original RAP, other RAP updates and related documents were published that described ongoing and recommended remedial actions. In 2005, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service released a Natural Resources Damages Assessment that described injury to the river and provided an economic assessment. In 2009, a restoration plan identified potential projects and targets for the fish and wildlife related BUIs.

Map data source: USEPA. Acquired with the assistance of ECT Inc.

Removing BUIs and restoring habitats

In 2011, the “beach closings” BUI was removed because the state monitoring records indicated that criteria for water quality were met.

Also in 2011, the AOC was assessed for aesthetic impairments as part of a statewide effort to evaluate all AOCs in Michigan with the Aesthetics BUI. No aesthetic impacts to the Kalamazoo AOC were found as a result of the 2010 Enbridge oil spill, approximately 30 miles upstream of the AOC. After two rounds of monitoring, no persistent conditions were found which may impair any of the state’s designated uses; therefore, the aesthetics BUI was removed.

Between July 2010 and December 2011, the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funded a Portage Creek Toxic Source Reduction project. The $3.8 million project included $530,000 of local match funding. It restored habitat in an industrialized section of Portage Creek, a primary tributary of the Kalamazoo River. Deteriorating cement channel walls that held the creek in place were removed as well as contaminated fill material from upland floodplain area. 

In 2012, EPA's Superfund program also removed 23,700 cubic yards of contaminated sediment on another part of Portage Creek. The creek’s banks were stabilized to prevent future contamination and erosion.

Work on the former Performance Paper property along Portage Creek changed the property from a dangerous nuisance into a valued community asset with scenic vistas and restored wildlife habitat, according to McCarthy. The City of Kalamazoo and its Brownfield Redevelopment Authority has plans for the eventual redevelopment of the property with enhanced open space, pedestrian/bike pathways, and mixed-use developments.

Dam removals

Dam removal on the Kalamazoo River is funded by the DNR’s Dam Management grant fund and a portion of the Enbridge oil spill settlement that was allocated for river restoration. Further, the DNR’s Wildlife Division was awarded $102,050 to help move the Otsego Township Dam removal project forward.

Removal of the Otsego Township Dam is nearly complete.

“There was serious danger of imminent failure of the Otsego Township Dam,” he says. “Because of the amount of contaminated sediments that are contained in that impoundment area, we’ve had to construct a temporary water control structure to not only control the water levels, but also to maintain control of the contaminated sediments. We’ve rerouted the stream channel, so it’s now back to where it was originally before the dam was constructed. That’s pretty good news.”

The MDEQ is now looking at conducting engineering design work for the Trowbridge Dam structure. “It’s also showing signs of stress and potential failure,” Riley says.
The Otsego City Dam is also on the AOC's radar for removal.

“That dam has had immediate essential repairs completed, but must await cleanup and remediation of contaminated sediments at the site before removal work on it can commence," says Riley. "Removal of the Trowbridge and Otsego City dams are in our sites for the next 10 years or so. It just depends on resource availability.”

Removing the dams will improve habitat for wildlife and increase recreation along the river. The dams no longer serve any real purpose.

Removing toxic sediments

Under the Superfund program, the USEPA is working to remove toxic PCBs in sediment accumulated behind the dams. The paper companies responsible for the pollution have already paid for sediment removal along much of the river from Kalamazoo to Plainwell.

USEPA estimates the value of recreational fishing losses due to contaminated sediments to be in the $20 to $40 million range. 

Because of the amount of remedial activities still necessary to occur to remove BUIs in the Kalamazoo River AOC, there are no predictions as to when it may be delisted.

“The time horizon is pretty long for the Kalamazoo River because it’s a Superfund site,” Riley says. "As progress continues to remove remaining contaminated sediment and the old dams on the river, the AOC will move closer to delisting."

To add insult to injury, in July 2010 Enbridge Energy Partners, LLP, had a pipeline rupture in the watershed, spilling nearly 843,000 gallons of crude oil into Talmadge Creek and the Kalamazoo River. After the discharge, some of the oil sank and mixed with river sediment, making it harder to locate and remove without doing additional environmental damage.

In March 2013, EPA ordered Enbridge to remove oil and oil-containing sediment, about 12,000 to 18,000 gallons, along parts of the Kalamazoo River.

“To the best of my knowledge, that cleanup is complete,” says Riley. “As a practical matter, that did not affect the Superfund site or the AOC because the oil was captured upstream of the Morrow Dam.”

These efforts have McCarthy feeling hopeful about the future.

"I’m really excited that my kids might be able to use the river again,"  she says.
This series about restoration in Michigan's Areas of Concern is made possible through support from the Michigan Office of Great Lakes through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
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