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.
Lately, Sheboygan is on the upswing. This city in Wisconsin that sits along the Sheboygan River is booming with new housing, more tourism, and more water-based recreation opportunities, according to a recent Great Lakes Commission study. Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG), as part of a team of partners, provided expertise that contributed to this success story.
Not so long ago, the river was considered a black eye on the community. Labeled one of the most polluted rivers in the country, it was contaminated with an alphabet soup of PCBs and PAHs. With funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, approximately 300,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment (or 15,000 full dump trucks) were removed from the river in 2012-2013. As a result, river-goers enjoy a deeper river with better navigation and access, and a cleaner habitat for fish and wildlife to thrive.
“There’s no question in my mind that if that cleanup effort hadn’t gone on, we would not see the kind of development and enthusiasm going on in our community,” said Adam Payne, Sheboygan County administrator. “It absolutely triggered a lot of the good things that are in play.”
As is typical for projects funded through the Great Lakes Legacy Act, partners were key to its success, including federal, state, local—agencies, non-for-profits, private companies—the list is extensive. “The level of collaboration and teamwork was unprecedented of anything I had seen in my career,” added Payne.
For its part, IISG funded research to assess the economic impact of the contaminated river on housing prices. “We looked at actual sales of single family houses in the area from 2002-2004,” explained John Braden, University of Illinois economist (now retired). “And we surveyed 850 residents to understand people’s perceptions of the river, and their willingness to pay more for housing if the river was cleaned up.”
Braden found that property values for homes within five miles of the contaminated waterways were significantly depressed—an 8 percent discount, on average. This research and related Sea Grant outreach helped illustrate the value of the cleanup, helped to keep the Sheboygan community informed about the remediation process as it happened, and helped to change the conversation about sediment remediation.
“Sediment remediation is very expensive, so how can we justify these multi-million dollar projects?” said Caitie Nigrelli, IISG social scientist. “The main goal is to improve environmental quality of water resources, but if we understand more of the benefits, we can make a better case for these projects.”
Nigrelli worked with a Sheboygan outreach team in 2012 to provide information to stakeholders and the public. She helped convey the results of Braden’s research in her outreach efforts through publications and other venues. In addition, bringing her social science expertise to the project, she oversaw a study to bring community perceptions to light to better understand how to communicate about the sediment remediation project and its benefits to the public.
“We found that while the river was viewed as an asset, it had a negative stigma,” said Nigrelli. “Our interviews before the remediation revealed that residents saw the water as unclean and some were hesitant and even afraid to come in contact with the water.”
Due to years of sedimentation, the depth of Sheboygan River was also viewed as a major concern as its shallowness limited access for larger boats and sailboats. While the point of the remediation was to remove contaminants, a side benefit was an increase in river depth. These and other findings helped Nigrelli and the outreach team target public information to address specific concerns.
Payne describes the value of a well-informed public in terms of just getting through the remediation process. “To put it in perspective, when we were removing the contaminated soil from the river and harbor, we had trucks coming and going through the heart of the city every three to five minutes, 24/7. That’s disruptive, lots of dust, noise, traffic and that obviously raises folks eyebrows and raises concerns. I think where outreach efforts were so helpful is in raising awareness with the public—these potential benefits are why we are going to go through this.”
To learn more about remediation partnership possibilities, “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 under 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.
To see what successful partnerships can accomplish, follow Nigrelli (@Gr8LakesLady) on Twitter as she has been sharing 22 sediment site success stories, including before and after photos, contamination causes, partnerships and cleanup details. Follow and join the conversation using #22SedimentStories.
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.
The U.S. EPA announced a new plan to improve water quality and restore habitats in the Great Lakes earlier this week during a meeting of region’s mayors in Chicago. The five-year plan, known as the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative Action Plan II, calls for a dramatic expansion of urban stormwater management projects and a more than 1,400 ton reduction in phosphorus fertilizer runoff. It also roughly doubles the number of acres covered by efforts to control invasive species and requires that new wetlands include plants that can thrive as climate change brings warmer temperatures. From The New York Times
It builds on a four-year initiative, begun in President Obama’s first term, that has already spent $1.6 billion on more than 2,100 restoration projects on the lakes’ American side. The added initiative, which extends through 2019, is expected to cost roughly the same.
The government says the project is the largest conservation program in the nation’s history, involving 15 federal agencies and the eight Great Lakes states. Read more
In addition to laying out new strategies, the latest phase of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative continues efforts to clean up Areas of Concern across the region, where polluted water and contaminated sediment pose a risk to wildlife and public health. Five of these largely industrial rivers and harbors have been restored in the last four years, and 10 more are slated for cleanup by 2019.
The Great Lakes Legacy Act remediation project on the Buffalo River resumed June 16, and will remove 500,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the river, then replace native aquatic plants to help restore the local ecosystem.
18 teachers from grades 4-11 attended the workshop to learn more about the restoration project and the curriculum, and were treated to hands-on activities and a tour of the river area to help bring the project and its impacts into their classes.
“It’s great to see so many educators come out to this kind of workshop,” Caitie said. “Many teachers want to incorporate place-based learning in their science curriculum, but may lack resources to do so. Now instead of using distant examples like rainforests to teach science, they can use their neighborhood rivers and lakes. These are places that students can visit and experience the science in person. They develop a love for these places and want to protect them.”
Two years ago, a group of middle school students planted native seedlings along the banks of Roxana Marsh to celebrate the successful cleanup of the waterway. On Monday, those same students returned for another day of learning and service to find the marsh in bloom – thanks in large part to their efforts.
“It’s good to know that we did something phenomenal to help our environment,” said Sandra Olivarria, one of the East Chicago Lighthouse Charter School students participating in the event.
Monday morning’s stewardship began with speeches from state and local officials, including Indiana Representative Earl Harris, Senator Lonnie Randolph, and Mayor Anthony Copeland of East Chicago.
“We need to start to get everyone involved in this kind of project at an early age so that when you grow up, you become part of something that keeps you involved for the long term,” Representative Harris said.
The rest of the day was devoted to hands-on activities that encouraged students to get familiar with the plants and animals inhabiting the area. The class looked at native and non-native plant species growing around the marsh, then checked on the flowers they had originally sprouted in their classroom. The kids worked together to pull up the invasive clover that had grown around their plantings – a little tricky at times, they said, but “pretty fun, too.”
“It feels so good to come back and see what we did two years ago, and see it all grown and restored!” one student exclaimed.
Down by the water, volunteer scientists helped students take samples of mud from the marsh to collect bottom-feeding aquatic animals that lived there. The students identified various species of worms, snails, larvae, and tadpoles, and were delighted at the chance to handle these small creatures.
The class also cleaned up trash from the marsh and along Roxana Drive, helping to beautify the area.
“I’m really proud of all the work the students performed today,” said IISG environmental social scientist Caitie McCoy. “It was thrilling to have them come back and take care of a beautiful environment that they helped create. Today, nature was our classroom, and I think the students learned a lot.”
Roxana Marsh is now home to blue herons, wild irises, and all sorts of aquatic life. But it wasn’t always that way. Located on the Grand Calumet River, the marsh was heavily polluted for more than a century with byproducts of heavy industry around East Chicago. Federal and state agencies worked to dredge the river, removing contaminated sediment and restoring the surrounding habitat as part of the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes Legacy Act.
Monday’s restoration activities and press event brought together partners from the US EPA Great Lakes National Program Office, US Fish and Wildlife, Indiana Department of Environmental Management, Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, The Nature Conservancy, and Shirley Heinz Land Trust. The Roxana Marsh cleanup and Caitie’s work to improve community engagement here and at other Areas of Concern is possible because of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Great Lakes Legacy Act.
Teachers interested in integrating AOC issues into their classroom can find activities and other resources in our Helping Hands curriculum.
“Forty-six House members from both parties recently sent a letter to leaders of a subcommittee that recommends spending on the environment.
It requests $300 million for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The program usually gets about that much for projects dealing with threats such as toxic pollution and invasive species. President Barack Obama’s 2015 budget would cut it to $275 million.
Rep. Sander Levin of Michigan says the program has done much to improve the lakes’ health and now isn’t the time to cut back.”