They've been called the "worst of the worst."
Once pristine, Upper Peninsula waterways including Deer Lake, Torch Lake and the Menominee River, Manistique River and St. Marys River are among 43 "toxic hot spots" designated as Great Lakes Areas of Concern
(AOCs) by the United States and Canada. The list was established in 1987 under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement
. Fourteen areas are wholly or partly in Michigan.
A major problem in Great Lakes AOCs – and the primary reason that many were designated in the first place – is contaminated sediments, where toxins from industrial wastes, mining operations and other sources settled out of the water and mingled with mud, sand and clay on the bottom. This can cause a host of problems, including contaminated drinking water and adverse impacts on fish, wildlife and other organisms lower on the food chain.
Sewage discharges are another big problem, as are loss of wetlands and other fish and wildlife habitats. Another is nonpoint pollution, a term referring to urban and agricultural runoff that carries contaminants like sediment, pesticides, spilled gas and oil, leakage from septic systems and landfills, livestock wastes and more as it washes down into rivers and lakes.
Great Lakes AOCs are evaluated according to how various physical, chemical or biological conditions in the AOC are impaired. There are 14 of these "beneficial use impairments" (BUIs) and an individual AOC may have anywhere from one to all of them.
As each impairment is corrected, it is "delisted" from the BUIs for that AOC. When all the BUIs have been removed, the AOC can be delisted. Four U.S. and three Canadian AOCs have been delisted to date.
Primary authority for restoration efforts in the AOCs is with the respective environmental agencies of the two countries, either USEPA or Environment Canada, though much of the oversight is delegated to the states and provinces. In Michigan, MDEQ plays the lead role, although many other state and federal agencies are involved as well.
Each AOC also has a public advisory council, or PAC, made up of area representatives that help to identify needs, set priorities and advocate for specific projects. Members typically include public officials, business people and representatives of volunteer or advocacy groups that often do much of the hands-on work in restoration projects.
For several decades, funding for AOC restoration was hard to come by. But that changed in 2010 when Congress passed the Great Lake Restoration Initiative (GLRI), authorizing funding for environmental restoration in AOCs. Bipartisan support since then has provided about $300 million a year in appropriations for restoration projects in the U.S. AOCs and elsewhere in the Great Lakes states.
The Deer Lake AOC, which has now been restored and delisted, covers the lake itself, about 1,000 acres, part of its Carp Creek tributary and the 20 miles of the Carp River through which it drains to Lake Superior just south of Marquette.
- Restrictions on Fish and Wildlife Consumption (there are consumption restrictions on all inland fish caught in Michigan, but these are stricter in an AOC)
- Tainting of Fish and Wildlife Flavor (i.e., oily or chemical taste)
- Degraded Fish and Wildlife Populations
- Fish Tumors or Other Deformities
- Bird or Animal Deformities or Reproductive Problems
- Degradation of Benthos (bottom-dwelling organism)
- Restrictions on Dredging Activities (limitations on navigational dredging to avoid stirring up toxic sediment)
- Eutrophication/Undesirable Algae
- Restrictions on Drinking Water Consumption, or Taste and Odor Problems
- Beach Closings (due to the presence of E. coli or other bacteria associated with sewage and animal wastes)
- Degradation of Aesthetics (visible pollution, such as oil slicks)
- Added Costs to Agriculture or Industry (for water treatment)
- Degradation of Phytoplankton and Zooplankton Populations
- Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat
The AOC had a relatively small list of impairments – fish or wildlife consumption, eutrophication/undesirable algae and reproduction problems in birds, specifically the bald eagles nesting along its shore.
The eagle's problems were eventually determined to have been more likely caused by DDT, a chemical which was banned in 1972. A new wastewater treatment plant in 1985 significantly reduced nutrient loads to the lake. Both the wildlife reproduction and eutrophication impairments were delisted in 2011.
Deer Lake (Landsat)
To control stormwater, the city of Ishpeming had routed Partridge Creek down into the old mineshafts under the city. But when that water came back out, it brought up mercury from old blasting caps with it, delivering it into Deer Lake.
Under a consent agreement with the mine owner, Cliffs Natural Resources, the creek was rerouted away from the mine shafts. The contaminated sediments on the bottom were allowed to be naturally covered with fresh sediment, while oxygen-rich surface water was directed to the bottom to prevent anaerobic bacteria from metabolizing the mercury.
Mercury levels fell steadily in northern pike and other Deer Lake fish from 1982-2011, and consumption advisories were eased to levels comparable with other parts of the state, leading to final delisting in 2014.
The Manistique is a fairly small AOC – just the final 1.7 miles of the river and the harbor where the river empties into Lake Michigan. The list of BUIs is fairly short as well. Only two presently remain – restrictions on fish/wildlife consumption and restrictions on dredging.
Three others have already been removed: degraded benthos in 2006, loss of fish/wildlife habitat in 2008 and beach closings/swimming restrictions in 2009.
Improvements to the city's wastewater treatment system reduced E. coli counts that had made bodily contact with the river inadvisable allowing removal of that impairment.
Contaminated sediments were also a problem at the Manistique River AOC, but the sources and the solution were different from Deer Lake. At Manistique, the primary issue was wood pulp and sawdust from paper mill and sawmill operations dating back a century or more, as well as discharges from other industry. These contaminated the river with PCBs and heavy metals while smothering the benthic (bottom-dwelling) environment.
USEPA conducted a number of dredging projects from 1995-2000, removing an estimated 140,000 cubic yards of sediment and old sawdust from the river, along with the PCBs and heavy metals they contained. Following subsequent natural sedimentation in the river, the environment for bottom-dwelling organisms improved and by extension, fish habitat as well, leading to the removal of those impairments.
The project was complicated by the presence of old islands made of slab wood, lumber mill discards used to create shipping piers way back when, which made it difficult for dredges to penetrate the bottom.
"So if you can imagine, dredging that river, you're taking out a bucket of sediment but getting those chunks of wood as well," says John Riley, MDEQ coordinator for the Manistique AOC.
Riley says there are two final dredging projects planned, one for this year and one next. After that, the management actions will be completed and following evaluations, it is hoped the AOC will be delisted in 2017-2018.
St. Marys River
By contrast, the St. Marys River AOC is considerably larger, running the length of the river's channels from Lake Superior to Quebec Bay on the Canadian side and the De Tour Passage on the U.S. The list of impairments is longer as well.
The St. Marys is a binational AOC, as it lies across the U.S.-Canadian border. Both countries are responsible for restoration on their own side, but work together to coordinate their efforts. The Canadian side has been the more heavily industrialized of the two, and is where the majority of the contaminated sediments have been deposited.
Algoma Steel Mill (Michigan Sea Grant)
Two of the BUIs – degraded aesthetics and bird/animal deformities or reproduction problems – were removed in 2014. The others still remain – restrictions on fish/wildlife consumption, excess algae, beach closings, dredging restrictions, fish tumors/deformities, loss of fish/wildlife habitat and degraded fish/wildlife populations.
All but one of the restoration actions on the U.S. side have been completed. The one that remains addresses the fish habitat and population impairments. It does that by trying to bring back some of what was lost when the St. Marys Rapids were swallowed up by the construction of the Soo Locks.
"A hundred and twenty years ago, we had an incredible fishery in the rapids," says Mike Ripley, environmental coordinator for the Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority in Sault Ste. Marie, Mich.
He described how the rapids created a huge spawning area, with fish so thick that some historical accounts report Indians catching whitefish by simply dipping them out with baskets.
To restore some of that, a causeway used to offload cars from the Sugar Island ferry will be removed and replaced with a bridge, allowing a small piece of rapids to flow through there again. Funding will come from the GLRI.
"For us restoring any little bit of that rapids is a big thing," says Riley, adding that the project is hoped to benefit walleye and similar species.
It's expected that the last of the U.S. impairments will be removed by 2019; work on the Canadian side is expected to take until 2025.
At the other end of the U.P., the Menominee River AOC also straddles a boundary; this one is between Michigan and Wisconsin. The two states coordinate their efforts though each is responsible for their own side.
The AOC covers the lower three miles of the river below Park Mill Dam; the cities of Menominee and Marinette on the Michigan and Wisconsin sides of the river, respectively; and about six miles of the Green Bay shoreline adjacent to the river's mouth.
Major pollution sources in the AOC have included coal tar from a former manufactured gas plant; paint sludge from a furniture company; arsenic wastes from a fire extinguisher company; a couple of paper mills; two wastewater plants; chemical and shipbuilding companies, a foundry and runoff from storage piles of salt, coal, and other materials.
One impairment, beach closings, was delisted in 2011 following improvements in the Marinette and Menominee wastewater treatment plants. All of the other management actions are scheduled to be completed by this fall.
It's hoped that full removal of the rest of the BUIs – consumption restrictions, degraded populations and benthos, habitat loss and dredging restrictions – will follow soon after, along with the AOC as a whole.
In many cases, cleanup efforts have been conducted or at least partially paid for by the company responsible or their current owner. The Lloyd Furniture Co. completed remediation of paint sludge at their site 20 years ago, and Tyco Fire Products LP paid half the cost of cleaning up arsenic-contaminated sediment at the former Ansul Fire Protection site, completed in 2013.
There have been several habitat restoration projects as well. Wild rice is being re-established in the wetlands near the river mouth, providing a protective habitat for juvenile fish. Other efforts have established nesting areas for waterfowl such as cranes and egrets on islands in the river.
One of the more unusual projects has been the installation of a fish elevator at the Menominee Dam last year, enabling sturgeon to reach expanded habitat upstream. The fish enter a pen and are lifted to the top of the dam, where they are sorted and the best candidates for spawning taken upstream past a second dam and released.
The move doubles the amount of spawning habitat available to the fish, according to Darren Kramer, a fisheries biologist with the Michigan Dept. of Natural Resources, but more importantly, provides seven times as much juvenile rearing habitat as is available downriver.
"There are several different types of habitat that lake sturgeon need to complete their life cycle." Kramer says. "Spawning habitat is just one."
The rearing habitat gives the young sturgeon a chance to grow before heading back downriver and out to the lake, increasing their chances of survival. The project is funded by the GLRI and the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, with participation by dam owner Eagle Creek Hydro.
The Torch Lake AOC in the Keewenaw Peninsula, whose boundaries are those of the lake itself, has only two remaining BUIs. But its problems are among the most challenging of any in the entire AOC program.
Torch Lake was the site of several mining and copper processing operations up through the late 1960s. This left behind ore slag and tailings, also called stamp sand, as byproducts of the operations, either piled on the land or dumped in the lake. There were also assorted chemical spills from time to time.
Torch Lake (Landsat)
The volume of these is enormous. Some 200 million tons of copper tailings were dumped in the 2,700 acre lake, which by some estimates account for 20 percent of its volume. In addition to copper residues, tailings are often contaminated with heavy metals, PCBs and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), a family of chemicals associated with petroleum products or incomplete combustion of organic matter.
Due to the volume, toxicity and slush-like consistency of the contaminated sediments, the USEPA determined that "the technology and scale needed to safely remove or stabilize these sediments without causing environmental harm doesn’t currently exist," and that it would be too difficult and expensive to attempt to remove them.
Instead, the EPA decided on a strategy of natural remediation, or allowing fresh sediment to gradually accumulate over the tailings and other materials, gradually closing them off from the environment. In the meantime, efforts were made to cap and stabilize piles of tailings on the land by covering them with fresh soil and planting various types of vegetation to cover it. But even those have sometimes been subject to fresh erosion.
"You can swim in that lake. The water's ok," Baker says. "But you need to be on a clean beach or diving from your boat." The fish are also edible, she adds, though there are limits on consumption.
A BUI for fish tumors or deformities was removed in 2007. Still remaining are impairments for degraded benthos and fish/wildlife consumption advisories.
There's no set timeline for delisting the Torch Lake AOC, though it could happen once sources of contaminants have been identified and are under control, and the lake is making progress toward recovery. But it's estimated that full recovery through natural means could take 800 years.
"We still need to identify the sources, the mechanisms that are doing this, so we can develop remediation plans that will work, says Baker. "Some of the locals are getting tired of studying this stuff, but you can't do anything unless you know it will work."
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.