Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) staff have been extra busy lately helping southern Lake Michigan communities and other Great Lakes communities address coastal issues through research, outreach and education, and their work has not gone unnoticed. Sea Granters working on pollution prevention, social science and communication have received three awards recognizing their excellence in bringing the latest science to those who can best use the information, empowering people to solve problems in sustainable ways.
Early Career Award
As part of the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network meeting, Sarah Zack was distinguished as recipient of the 2019 Great Lakes Sea Grant Network Early Career Award, presented in Sault Ste Marie, Michigan in September. Zack holds a dual role in pollution prevention, working for both Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and University of Illinois Extension. Since taking on the position of pollution prevention specialist in 2016, she has participated in nearly 60 outreach or education events, reaching nearly 5,000 Great Lakes residents and decision makers, scientists, veterinary professionals and students with the pollution prevention message.
“I was honored to be nominated for the award by my program administration, and shocked and grateful when I won, because I work with so many amazing, effective Sea Grant staff from programs around the Great Lakes,” said Zack. “It feels really good to be recognized, but it’s definitely the strength of my partners that make what we do so fun and meaningful. I couldn’t do it alone!”
The Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant medicine collection program hit its 10-year anniversary in 2018 under Zack’s leadership. During that time, over 118 tons—or 236,000 pounds—of medicine have been collected through community collection programs supported by IISG. Since 2016, seven new permanent programs have been established, bringing the total of engaged communities to 54.
Since 2017, Zack has also played a critical role in organizing the annual Emerging Contaminants in the Environment Conference, cohosted by the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. It has grown from a one-day conference in 2016, with about 60 attendees, 15 presentations and 11 posters, to a two-day conference with over 100 attendees, 32 presentations, 15 posters and an expert discussion panel in 2019.
The Great Lakes Sea Grant Network (GLSGN) awards are organized and given by the GLSGN program leaders to recognize individual Sea Grant professionals who have shown noteworthy enthusiasm, performance, accomplishments and impact during their Sea Grant careers. Great Lakes Sea Grant individual achievement awards are the only Great Lakes Sea Grant-sponsored awards to recognize individual accomplishments during Sea Grant careers. Recipients of the GLSGN Early Career Award have worked for Sea Grant less than seven years at the time of the award.
Silver Medal for Superior Service
As part of the Zephyr Great Lakes Remediation Team, Caitie Nigrelli won a 2018 Silver Medal for Superior Service Award from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, presented at the U.S. EPA National Honor Awards in Washington, D.C. in July. This Great Lakes Legacy Act team successfully remediated the wetlands below the former Zephyr Oil Refinery in Michigan. The team was successful in remediating legacy contamination and restoring native habitat within this Great Lakes Area of Concern (AOC), and contributing to the future removal of BUIs within the AOC.
The team was honored for exemplary problem-solving and project management to successfully remediate an extremely toxic contaminated sediment site under extreme pressure and tight timelines. They also won the Western Dredging Association 2019 Environmental Excellence Award, presented in Chicago in June.
Nigrelli works for University of Illinois Extension and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.
Every year, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant publishes the ways in which the program has impacted communities and the region through long-term projects addressing critical coastal issues. The impacts booklet published last year, Impacts 2017: Two Great States Caring for One Great Lake, has won a 2019 APEX Award of Excellence in the category of 1-2 Person-Produced Annual Reports. IISG’s strategic communicator, Irene Miles, and graphic designer, Joel Davenport, produced the booklet together.
“This is a well-deserved award and is evidence of how hard-working, dedicated, and excellent our communications team is,” said Stuart Carlton, IISG’s assistant director. “It’s also evidence of the strong impact that Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant has had in the area, helping people use science to live a more resilient life.”
APEX awards are based on distinction in graphic design, editorial content and the ability to achieve overall communications excellence. The awards are given each year by Communication Concepts to recognize outstanding publication work in a variety of fields.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.
We all know the Great Lakes are big and beautiful, but you may not know that after decades of industry along their shores, many communities in the region have been left with polluted waterways and degraded waterfronts. Now that much of this manufacturing activity is gone, many of these Areas of Concern are being cleaned up through federal, state and local partnerships. Much of this work is funded through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
Recently, National Geographic photographer Peter Essick spent some time documenting the sights, the people and the work taking place in these locations. These striking images provided an opportunity for the Great Lakes Sea Grant Network to tell some stories of restoration, revitalization and revival in this collective photo essay called Great Lakes Resurgence: Cleanup Efforts Bring Life to Local Waterfronts.
Forty fourth grade students from East Chicago spread out along the Grand Calumet River in May to learn about science and environmental stewardship. Through a series of hands-on, active learning stations, scientists taught students how life has returned to the previously degraded landscape. The field trip was part of the seventh annual Grand Calumet River Stewardship Day at the Seidner Dune and Swale Nature Preserve in Northwest Indiana. As these students head back to school and into the fifth grade, the hope is that—because of their participation in the stewardship day—they will have a renewed love for nature and a stronger tendency towards caring for the local environment as they grow older.
Scientists and agency leads joined the students at Roxana Marsh to help with fish identification, macroinvertebrate sampling, bird watching and dune and swale exploration. Special guests included Chris Korleski, director of the U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, and Tomas Höök, director of Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG).
The stewardship day served as a celebration of a successful remediation and restoration process thus far for the river. “The Grand Calumet River is an Area of Concern, which means that it has environmental degradation, has pollution, and the habitat has been fragmented, lost or taken over by invasive species,” said Caitie Nigrelli, social scientist for IISG and the U.S. EPA, and organizer of the annual event. “We’re working together with a lot of state, federal and local partners to clean it up and restore it.
The Grand Calumet River was once called the most polluted river in America. Through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, 2 million cubic yards of river and wetland sediment have been removed or capped and 84 acres of habitat have been restored. “If you clean up a portion of a river or a lake, people want to come fish,” said Korleski. “Maybe somebody opens a bait shop, then somebody opens a coffee shop for the people who want to come fish. So, it’s not just the environmental aspects that are critically important to us, but [cleanup] helps restore communities economically as well. It gives people more options and more recreational opportunities. It’s a place that people want to be.”
Grand Calumet River Stewardship Day is a place-based education program and part of IISG’s efforts to connect students with local restored natural areas. The goal of the event is to increase students’ attachment and belonging to the Grand Calumet River and surrounding nature, heightening their sense of place and encouraging them to protect and care for the river.
Learn more about the Grand Calumet River and other Areas of Concern on Nigrelli’s website, Great Lakes Mud.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.
The Great Lakes Legacy Act team that successfully remediated the wetlands below the former Zephyr Oil Refinery in Michigan won the Western Dredging Association (WEDA) 2019 Environmental Excellence Award. During its Annual Summit & Expo in Chicago, held from June 4-7, WEDA presented two Environmental Excellence Awards, recognizing projects that demonstrate environmental awareness in each of two categories. The “Environmental Dredging” award went to the Zephyr Refinery Project and the “Mitigation and Adaptation to Climate Change” award to the La Quinta Aquatic Habitat Mitigation Project.
The prize winners fulfilled and exceeded the criteria of the Environmental Commission and made outstanding contributions to meeting the goals of WEDA, which are to “promote communication and understanding of environmental issues and stimulate new solutions associated with dredging and placement of dredged materials such that dredging projects, including navigation and environmental, are accomplished in an efficient manner while meeting environmental goals.”
The 2019 WEDA Environmental Excellence Award for Environmental Dredging was presented to the project team from EA Engineering, Science, and Technology, Inc., PBC (EA) and Sevenson Environmental Services (SES) for the dredging and restoration of the Former Zephyr Refinery: Fire Suppression Ditch project (Zephyr project). Other entities accepting the award included project owners the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), as well as project partners Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, and the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership.
The Zephyr project area is located along the North Branch of the Muskegon River in the Muskegon Lake Area of Concern (AOC), Muskegon, Michigan. For more than 40 years, the Zephyr Oil Refinery operated with historic releases of petroleum and metals into the Muskegon Lake watershed. These releases contributed to significant contamination of the sediment and wetlands surrounding the site and resulted in the loss of fish and wildlife habitat, as well as other beneficial use impairments (BUIs) to the AOC. The Zephyr project was identified in the Stage 2 Remedial Action Plan for the Muskegon Lake AOC for restoration in order to support BUI removal. Under the Great Lakes Legacy Act, through the strong partnership between the U.S. EPA GLNPO and MDEQ, the project was completed in late 2018.
In addition to receiving the Environmental Excellence Award, the U.S. EPA GLNPO accepted WEDA’s Special Recognition Award for accomplishments toward restoring and protecting the health of the Great Lakes, specifically by remediating historical contamination in ports, harbors and other waterways. The people at GLNPO were honored as key players and leaders in finding practicable solutions to complex problems, just as they had in the remediation of the wetlands near the former Zephyr Oil Refinery.
The Zephyr project provided numerous environmental benefits by remediating legacy contamination and restoring native habitat within a Great Lakes AOC, and contributing to the future removal of BUIs within the AOC. It demonstrated how innovative partnerships and contracting approaches can lead to success on many levels. The remediation will provide economic benefits to the Muskegon Lake area and Great Lakes region and the many lessons learned will be beneficial for future projects. In addition, the thorough public outreach activities – the site is located adjacent to residential areas – demonstrated the importance of engaging with residents and other concerned citizens.
“Community outreach was a priority and a team effort at Zephyr,” said Caitie Nigrelli, environmental social scientist with the U.S. EPA and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant. “We were digging up petroleum-based contaminants upwind of a neighborhood. We wanted to be a good neighbor. We needed to know that our project was maintaining air quality standards, and had a plan in place to communicate that. We went door to door before construction started to alert neighbors of potential odors and thank them in advance for their patience.”
Sustainable approaches were implemented in the remediation, including the reuse of all woody debris and trees removed on the site for habitat structures. The project team also left approximately 8% of the haul road material in place for an upcoming restoration project on the adjacent property, therefore reducing disposal quantities and reusing material in a beneficial manner. Finally, the environmental dredging of the Former Zephyr Refinery: Fire Suppression Ditch area included many unique elements that will be transferable and adaptable to future contaminated sediment remediation and restoration projects with similar characteristics.
To learn more about the Zephyr remediation process and to see drone footage of the wetlands before and after cleanup, visit Great Lakes Mud.
Through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, the Muskegon Lake Area of Concern took one step closer to a clean bill of health. At the former Zephyr Oil Refinery, 50,000 cubic yards of sediment contaminated with petroleum, lead and other heavy metals have been removed from an adjacent wetland.
In the early 1900s, Muskegon County experienced a mini oil boom and the Zephyr Oil Refinery set up shop overlooking the Muskegon River, converting crude oil into gasoline and naphtha. Over its lifetime, the company spilled hundreds of thousands of gallons of oil and built a ditch from the wetlands below to bring water closer to put out fires. During oil-based fires, water mixed with oil, ash and smoke—this mucky water was then returned to the wetlands.
The cleanup effort was led by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency through a Great Lakes Legacy Act partnership with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“The Zephyr wetland, which sits on private property, is adjacent to the Muskegon River. It sits just above the mouth of the river to Muskegon Lake, where much cleanup work has already been done,” said Kathy Evans, Environmental Program Manager for the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission (WMSRDC). WMSRDC is the local support coordinator for the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership, a volunteer organization that works to restore the lake, and was a key player in helping bring attention to the site.
Workers accurately measure with GPS instruments the extent of the contamination before the oil-tainted soil was removed with heavy equipment. The soil was dewatered before being sent to a landfill. When the site was clean, new soil was placed and native vegetation planted. (Photo National Geographic / Peter Essick)
Before the cleanup, Caitie Nigrelli, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant environmental social scientist, and her intern Carly Norris, interviewed residents to understand people’s perceptions of the remediation. Several findings from this effort helped shape how the public was informed as well as the cleanup process itself.
The needs assessment revealed that some residents were confused about what the cleanup entailed, expecting that nearby industrial storage tanks would be removed. “The contamination was historical and in the sediment—that’s what would be remediated,” explained Nigrelli. “We tailored our outreach information to make sure neighbors understood what the cleanup would accomplish.”
The interviews also revealed that many residents were very concerned about possible odors released from digging up petroleum-soaked sediment. To address this, EPA sought input from another federal agency, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, installed an air monitoring system and established a hotline for residents to report odors. The remediation was also timed to take some advantage of cooler months when people don’t typically have their windows open. Onsite, the dredgers used odor suppressing foam and quickly trucked away the smelliest sediment.
To make sure that nearby residents and businesses had accurate and timely information about the cleanup and potential accompanying odors, the outreach team donned their hardhats and went door to door. “We helped correct some rumors about the site and the cleanup so that expectations were where they should be,” said Nigrelli.
The cleanup also provided an opportunity to engage local students in learning about the impact of pollution in their community. In the Reeths-Puffer School District, IISG’s Ben Wegleitner visited 18 classrooms ranging from kindergarten to ninth grade, altogether talking to 250 students. He brought drone videos of the remediation work so the students could see the project progress.
“We talked about the wetland and how it’s connected to the Muskegon River and Muskegon Lake and then Lake Michigan,” said Wegleitner. “The cleanup of the wetland has impact on both the local scale and in context of the entire Great Lakes.”
Locally, Evans’ organization is already on to the next project to make the most of this work. “We were able to get funding from EPA and NOAA to restore another 53 acres of fish and wildlife habitat adjacent to Zephyr, immediately upstream,” she said. “This will make for a bigger, more meaningful and connected restored area from a fish and wildlife habitat perspective.”
For more information about the Zephyr cleanup (including before and after drone videos) and contaminated sediment in the Great Lakes, visit Great Lakes Mud.