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.
Cleaning up contaminated rivers, lakes and harbors facilitates the revitalization of waterfront economies on the Great Lakes. Aimed at industries, municipalities, states and non-governmental organizations, “A Seat at the Table: Great Lakes Legacy Act” is a new video that explains what it means to be a cost-share partner with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Great Lakes Legacy Act (GLLA). The video uses interviews with partners to describe the benefits and challenges of cost-share partnering, the cost-sharing mechanism, examples of in-kind services and the flexibility of partnerships.
The GLLA is a component of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that addresses sediment remediation and habitat restoration in Great Lakes Areas of Concern. Contaminated sediment—caused by toxic chemicals, heavy metals, oil and other pollutants—can be a serious problem for communities struggling to revitalize their waterfronts and boost their economies.
Since 2002, the EPA has partnered with 57 entities under the GLLA to study, design and execute sediment cleanups across the Great Lakes basin. Over 4 million cubic yards of sediment have been remediated, removing threats to public health, creating vibrant environments for fish and wildlife, and giving coastal communities usable waterfronts.
The program is based on cost-sharing, which means that cleanup projects that result in economic revitalization, increased property values and an improved quality of life cannot take place unless partners contribute money or in-kind services. Through the GLLA, the EPA will cover up to 65 percent of the cleanup cost, and nonfederal entities can team up to volunteer matching funds. Once partners have been established, the GLLA program is able to help communities by completing cleanup projects.
“Legacy Act projects don’t take place unless a volunteer comes to the table and contributes cash or in-kind services,” said Caitie Nigrelli, an environmental social scientist for Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and a liaison to the EPA Great Lakes National Program Office. “We have a lot of contaminated sediment sites left in the Great Lakes, creating blight and preventing local economies from realizing their potential. Voluntary, collaborative partnerships are the solution to the problem.”
Current and past partners include industry organizations (Honeywell, Ford, U.S. Steel), states (Indiana, Minnesota), municipalities (City of Toledo, Ashtabula City Port Authority) and non-governmental organizations (Buffalo Niagara Waterkeeper).
Want to see what successful partnerships can accomplish? Follow Caitie Nigrelli (@Gr8LakesLady) on Twitter as she shares 22 sediment site success stories, including before and after photos, contamination causes, partnerships and cleanup details. She’ll share one story, highlighting one location, each day for 22 days. Follow and join the conversation using #22SedimentStories.
“A Seat at the Table: Great Lakes Legacy Act” was funded by the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and produced by Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant and University of Illinois Extension.
Legacy pollutants—chemical contaminants left behind by industry from decades ago and prior to modern pollution laws—remain a burden in some Great Lakes communities. In fact, the U.S. side of the Great Lakes have 27 Areas of Concern (AOC) that are still considered impaired due to risks to human health, pollution, habitat loss, degradation and other issues.
“For the first time, we have a program and funding specifically dedicated to addressing the most pervasive environmental problem facing the AOCs,” said Matt Doss, policy director for the Great Lakes Commission. “Not only has the Legacy Act lead to actual cleanups of contaminated sediments—generating real, on-the-ground environmental improvements—it revitalized the entire AOC program by demonstrating that real progress was possible.”
Over multiple projects, nearly 1 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment in the Buffalo River have been cleaned up through the Great Lakes Legacy Act.
The GLLA program is administered by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Great Lakes National Program Office in Chicago, Illinois. GLLA uses a unique funding strategy that combines voluntary support from states, businesses, and non-governmental organizations, and the federal government through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant assesses outreach needs and engages stakeholders at the community level where GLLA sediment cleanups take place.
Sediment cleanups come in many sizes. The largest GLLA completed project dredged and capped one million cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the East Branch of the Grand Calumet River in northwest Indiana.
“Together, the State Natural Resource Trustees, Federal Natural Resource Trustees and EPA have spent over $180 million on sediment remediation projects in the Grand Calumet River, supporting a heathier fish community and attracting a robust migratory bird population,” said Bruno Pigott, Commissioner of the Indiana Department of Environmental Management.
To put dredge volumes in perspective, consider how the size of a single cubic yard compares to the average height of a man.
Much has been accomplished in the program’s first 15 years. Under GLLA, 21 projects are complete in six out of eight Great Lakes states, and more are in the planning stage. Through federal support and local funds, over $588 million has been spent to investigate sediment contamination, design cleanups, and implement solutions to pollution in AOCs.
“The Legacy Act is now among the most successful cleanup programs in the region and a cornerstone of the AOC program,” said Doss.
For the most comprehensive web coverage of sediment cleanups under the Great Lakes Legacy Act, visit www.greatlakesmud.org or follow Great Lakes Mud on Facebook.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue University Extension.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s Terri Hallesy and Leslie Dorworth and I pulled up along the river’s edge and parked our car on the gravel road. As our group approached the bank, two majestic egrets took flight looking like purest snow against a backdrop of vibrant blues and green. A bald eagle had been spotted earlier, perched on a favorite branch of a dead cottonwood hanging over the river.
Educators tour Roxana Marsh, a 19-acre restoration site.
It’s hard to believe that five years ago, a brown stand of the invasive species, Phragmites, had dominated the landscape where we were standing. The Grand Calumet River has made a radical transformation over the last 10 years thanks to the Great Lakes Legacy Act and many dedicated federal, state, and local partners. Our mission that day was to help 42 teachers from South Bend, Indiana understand just how large the ongoing transformation is, in hopes that they would carry this inspirational message back to their classrooms in the form of science labs, writing assignments, and other educational activities.
We set out to accomplish this mission by hosting an IISG teacher workshop at Purdue University Northwest, Hammond campus in collaboration with The Nature Conservancy (TNC), the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Indiana Department of Environmental Management (IDEM).
IISG’s Caitie Nigrelli stands in front of 58 acres of restored wetlands of the East Branch of the Grand Calumet River.
Leslie and I have worked many years on the Grand Calumet River remediation and restoration and led the workshop. IISG assistant, Ben Wegleitner, played a coordinating role. Working together, we brought in partners, Susan MiHalo (TNC), Carl Wodrich (DNR), and Anne Remek (IDEM), to talk about the Grand Calumet River and to host a tour of restored sites along the river.
As IISG education coordinator, Terri demonstrated curricula and classroom activities as educators worked in groups, insuring its infusion into existing science curricula.
She shared information about the issue of aquatic invasive species spread by sharing an innovative web site, Nab the Aquatic Invader! This engaging tool introduces students (grades 4-10) to marine and freshwater invasive species and their impacts using a detective theme and cartoon characters. Teachers also learned the environmental issue concerning improper release of classroom animals and plants and the threat they pose to the Great Lakes ecosystem through the campaigns, Habitattitude™ and Be a Hero-Transport Zero ™.
Carl Wodrich (right), Indiana Department of Natural Resources, guides educators on a hike.
Terri explained what she hoped to achieve that day—through direct experience with relevant education resources, these educators are now better equipped to explain how students can play an active role in helping to prevent the spread of AIS and foster a greater awareness of aquatic science.
The 2.6-mile section of the river, located near the Port of Monroe, Michigan’s only port on Lake Erie, was contaminated with PCBs and lead from nearby manufacturing. Multiple cleanups starting in 1997 have removed a total of 135,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment.
The River Raisin was once home to American lotus beds and sturgeon populations. Pollution drove these species away, but the cleanup will restore the river and provide a healthy habitat for native fish, birds, and plants.
Dredging was then followed by a process known as capping that involves the installation of sand, clay, and stones over any residual contaminated sediment to create a barrier with the rest of the waterbody. This strategy is commonly used in combination with dredging.
“Contractors worked 24 hours a day, seven days a week over the last month or so to get the remedial cap installed,” Ben Wegleitner, IISG sediment remediation outreach specialist. “They wanted to get the top layer of armor stone in place before the next large freighter came into port.”
Wegleitner narrated the video above.
In the coming weeks, the equipment and the sediment processing area will go through a complete decontamination procedure before being removed from the site.
The area will continue to go through extensive monitoring before it’s officially delisted from the Areas of Concern list through a process that can take years.
“This site has been through a lot in the last 30 years,” Wegleitner said. “Without a doubt, this is a major milestone.”
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.
Ben Wegleitner is our new social science outreach assistant. He will be working with communities at multiple contaminated sediment sites as part of the Great Lakes Legacy Act. He is helping Caitie Nigrelli, IISG environmental social scientist, to create outreach materials, host educational events, and maintain a social media presence to connect communities with large-scale remediation projects on their waterways.
Milwaukee residents who have spent most of their lives near the sprawling Lincoln Park have stories to tell about how degraded the park had become. The Milwaukee River was hidden behind buckthorn and other brush and the fish that lived in the tainted water were too contaminated to eat.
Last week they shared some of these memories as part of a joyous celebration that the park and river have been cleaned up. State Representative Mandela Barnes described the park now as “good for people’s health.” At this event, a ceremonial ribbon was cut and the park was officially reborn.
Lincoln Park is in the Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern, designated by the International Joint Commission. Contamination in the park came from historic industrial and municipal discharges among other sources.
Over a four year period, 171,000 cubic yards of sediment laced with an alphabet soup of contaminants—PCBs, PAHs, and NAPLs—were removed from targeted zones in the river and 12.5 acres of shoreline were restored. Commenting the time and work that went into this remediation and restoration, Cameron Davis, EPA senior advisor to the administrator, described the project partners as more persistent than the contaminants themselves.
Throughout the process, Caitie Nigrelli, IISG environmental social scientist was on the ground, keeping the community informed, but also facilitating residents to take some ownership of the park. Nigrelli helped a volunteer organization get started—Friends of Lincoln Park—and joined in the group’s one year anniversary last fall.
Anne Stadler Vaillancourt, a leader of the Friends group, spoke at last week’s event and a number of members were there to set up, take down, and enjoy the festivities. The organization is enjoying success and is ready to grow in membership. They recently held a volunteer cleanup day at the park and more than 100 people showed up. They have two upcoming Weed Out events to remove invasive species on May 14 and May 28.
Stadler Vaillancourt expressed to the morning’s participants that the Friends of Lincoln Park are committed to take care of the park for the long term.
Also in attendance were: Kevin Haley, landscape architect and John Dargle, Jr., director, both of Milwaukee County Parks; State Sen. Lena Taylor; State Rep. David Brown; Theo Lipscomb, chairman of Milwaukee County Board of Supervisors; and Ed Eberle, assistant deputy secretary of Wisconsin DNR.
The Grand Calumet River in northwest Indiana, abused from centuries of industrial contamination, celebrated a triumphant milestone in October.
Volunteers, environmental organizers, and local, state, and federal politicians gathered to admire the incredible transformation of a river that was once drained of its ecological significance.
IISG Environmental Social Scientist Caitie Nigrelli who led an outreach team to raise awareness about this enormous undertaking soaked it all in.
Caitie Nigrelli, left, and Diana Mally, an environmental
engineer with the U.S. EPA, walk by the river.
“I’m enjoying the beautiful river,” Nigrelli said. “It‘s amazing because just a few years ago I was standing in the same spot, and it was contaminated. Now I look out and it is clean and beautiful.”
Nigrelli serves as a liaison between the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (EPA) and community stakeholders to promote awareness of the Grand Cal remediation through public meetings, tours, and events with school children.
The Grand Calumet was at rock bottom when the International Joint Commission designated it as an Area of Concern in 1987. Since then $159 million in combined state and U.S. EPA funds through the Great Lakes Legacy Act have thus far provided the means to clean it up.
Because of the extent of the work, the Grand Cal’s 13-mile system was divided into eight separate projects, with more milestones to come. This most recent event marked the completion of a 2-mile section from Kennedy Avenue to Cline Avenue at a cost of $82 million. The money went toward remediating 1.1 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment, restoring 58 acres of marsh habitat, and installing more than 170,000 plants.
This effort not only remediated sediment, but also removed invasive species like Phragmites that had overrun dune and swale habitat, crowding out native plants.
The federal funding, while generous, comes with a significant stipulation: Local partners must match at least 35 percent of the cost of remediation. The Indiana Departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Management footed the bill with money from a Natural Resource Damage Assessment involving eight industries.
Kris Krouse, Shirley Heinze Land Trust executive director, said, “From our perspective as an organization, it is probably one of the most spectacular and monumental achievements when it comes to land conservation.”
Octogenarian Lee Botts, a prominent Great Lakes environmental activist since the 1960s, is making a film about the changes the south end of Lake Michigan is experiencing. She remembers questioning that any kind of restoration was ever going to happen.
“Amazing progress is being made by partnerships among all kinds of interests—some of whom in the past were enemies and opposed the conservation,” Botts said. “Now it’s a shared goal of all these interests. We’re making progress.”
Remediation on the next section starts next week—going west, it includes the city of Hammond and will go up to the Illinois border.