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.
Caitie Nigrelli, IISG environmental social scientist, was recognized with two Bronze Medal Awards from U.S. EPA Region 5 for her work as part of the East Branch Grand Calumet River remediation and restoration project team and the Lincoln Park area and Milwaukee River Channel remediation and restoration project team.
On my first day at the site, I was amazed to look south from the bluff to see what looked like a thriving, healthy wetland—albeit, a little overcrowded with cattails. It didn’t seem like the polluted site I’d read about, where petroleum fires were once a common occurrence or where lead concentrations are so high, remediated sediments will not be moved off site until they are treated.
While the south end of the Zephyr site, near the north branch of the Muskegon River looks picturesque, it still contains contaminants and is need of remediation.
But that’s the thing about legacy pollutants: They aren’t always as obvious as a bag of trash or a discarded television. Many contaminants are invisible to the naked eye. Even the visible ones can lie out of sight underwater and still pose a threat to the ecosystem, including the insects, fish, and birds that live there.
The remnants of petroleum are more apparent up close. In some locations at the Zephyr site, the water in the wetlands has an oily sheen to it. At others, there is a faint odor. Despite the issues, I was encouraged by discussions with MDEQ, EPA, and their contractors about the plan of work and project design. The Zephyr site is finally going to get cleaned up!
The work is being funded through a cost-share program between EPA and the State of Michigan under the Great Lakes Legacy Act. Unlike enforcement-style remediation programs, the Great Lakes Legacy Act encourages rapid remediation by offering cost sharing and avoiding blame. A project that could take decades of litigation can instead be completed in 3-5 years through cooperation. And it provides a mechanism to clean up contamination left behind by long-gone, bankrupted industries, as is the case at Zephyr.
An oily sheen near the Zephyr site.
From what I gleaned from the current property owner (who is not responsible for the pollution left behind by the former landowner) is that nearly everyone in the community is tired of the stigma associated with “the old Zephyr refinery.” And just because the remediation is happening entirely on private land doesn’t mean it won’t benefit the community. Sediment remediation will improve the quality of drinking water and reduce any odor or taste issues. Clean sediment will also provide better habitat for migratory fish and birds; a benefit to tourists and locals, alike.
An added benefit of a Great Lakes Legacy Act remediation project at the Zephyr site is the habitat restoration set to follow. The restoration design calls for open water habitats along with native wetland plants to provide ample habitat for waterfowl and other birds, amphibians, and reptiles while also improving the existing floodplain for the north branch of the Muskegon River.
U.S. EPA and Michigan DEQ officials take more sediment samples.
Remediation is tentatively planned for late fall 2016. Once a contractor is on board, equipment will brought to the site for what is called “mobilization.” Shortly afterwards, temporary roads will be constructed, a staging area will be established (to dry out the sediments before being transported off site), and excavation can commence.
My first Great Lakes Legacy Act site visit was very encouraging. Being on site with the project managers, partners, and engineers allowed me to see how a cooperative project functions. I was able to see the sediment up close and understand the concerns this community has had for decades. It’s obvious that a Great Lakes Legacy Act project, or any project of this magnitude, could not be completed alone.
Schoolchildren once again got the chance to explore and learn from the environmentally remarkable Grand Calumet River at the remediated Roxana Marsh in northwest Indiana.
Seventy students from fourth and sixth grades atHarrison,McKinleyandCarrie Gosch elementaryschools worked one-on-one with scientists and experts doing activities like fish identification, macroinvertebrate sampling, bird watching, and tree planting. The mayor of East ChicagoAnthony Copeland even stopped by and helped the students plant a swamp white oak, a tree native to the area.
For a long time, the Grand Cal was referred to as the most polluted river in America. Through Great Lakes Legacy Act funding, almost 2 million cubic yards of river and wetland sediment have been removed or capped and 84 acres of habitat have been restored, including Roxana Marsh.
“It builds pride-in-place,” said Caitie Nigrelli, IISG environmental social scientist who’s been organizing the event every year. “It also helps encourage kids to take part in future stewardship efforts.”
Carrie Gosch Elementary sixth-grader Gerald Lewis was impressed by all the birds and insects and fish he saw.
“I didn’t know we were going to see this much, like eggs on the ground and stuff,” Lewis said. “And we saw some of the fish that was polluted by the oil.”
But his new-found interest in the environment didn’t end there. It made him want to do something about it.
“I felt sad at first when they showed us the fish that was getting hurt and killed,” Lewis said. “That made me want to think, like when I get older, I can help them.”
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois 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.
Lincoln Park and I are both coming to the end of an exciting chapter this fall. As my internship with
IISG comes to a close, Phase 2 sediment remediation work in in Lincoln Park in Milwaukee is also finishing up.
Four years and more than 170,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment later, Lincoln Park is looking to reap the benefits of the newly cleaned Milwaukee River. As contractors work to remove equipment, sediment samples are being taken to ensure no contamination has been missed.
To commemorate this truly historic milestone, IISG environmental social scientist Caitie Nigrelli and I traveled to Milwaukee to spend some time on the river and celebrate the success with our clean-up partners. Hospitable as usual, Friends of Lincoln Park members took us around the city allowing us to catch a glimpse of the possibilities that environmental reinvestment holds for community revitalization.
Within the park, we took advantage of the warm fall weather for a canoe trip through the remediated portion of the river. As we paddled, perennial grasses and beaver-cut branches secluded us from Lincoln Park’s urban setting. We were not the only ones out experiencing the newly restored park; kill-deer, great blue herons, and other wildlife were also enjoying a clean habitat.
Although remediation work is complete, there is still much to be done within the park. Much like sediment remediation, successful ecosystem restoration is a long process. Started in 2012, the 11-acre Phase 1 restoration work is finally showing the fruits of its labor.
Many bees could be seen buzzing around native asters (see photo) and goldenrod on the shoreline at the west end of the park. Like Phase 1, restoration work in the East Oxbow of the river will bring a diversity of native plant species, stabilize the shoreline, and provide habitat for fish and wildlife.
After watching the sun set over the river, Caitie and I completed our day at the Friends of Lincoln Park restoration celebration. Over cake and ice cream, representatives from the Milwaukee County Parks and CH2M, an environmental consulting company, presented information on the remediation and restoration progress.
The neighborhood unity fostered through this river cleanup is impressive. As a new chapter begins for the river, park, and neighbors alike, seeds of passion and park investment are spreading, akin to the native seeds of restoration to come.
It was a chilly May 12th, cloudy and windy as well. But 29 sixth graders from West Side Middle School in East Chicago, Indiana came to nearby Roxana Marsh to experience what the outdoors has to offer, learn new things, help with the cleanup and restoration of the natural area, and enjoy the afternoon. Roxana Marsh is part of the larger Grand Calumet River Area of Concern, which has been undergoing dredging through the Great Lakes Legacy Act over the past six years. The marsh section of the project was completed three years ago with the removal of 600,000 cubic yards of sediment. This accomplishment was celebrated with a press event attended by government officials and local school children. Those middle schoolers left their legacy in perennial plants that are now thriving along the marsh. This year’s class is the third group of gardeners in what may well become an annual tradition.
In addition to planting natives, the students learned the basics of birding, explored the small community of life in sediment, and manned trash bags for garbage detail. There were water beetles, egrets, killdeer, toads, dragonfly nymphs, and more to experience.
Throughout their afternoon tour, the 6th graders were guided by experts from Audubon Chicago Region, U.S. EPA, The Nature Conservancy, Shirley Heinz Land Trust, Indiana’s departments of Natural Resources and Environmental Management, Northwest Indiana Regional Planning Commission, Dunes Learning Center, and Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant.
The first surprise for the students was just how close the natural area is to their school and their world. “They had no idea that this was here or about the dredging and restoration, said teacher Linda Padilla. “They were sure we would be going someplace farther away.”
Last June, she took part in a one-day workshop at Purdue University Calumet, which introduced the Helping Hands curriculum to 25 local educators. Helping Hands activities are ideally suited to schools in Areas of Concern that are going through the cleanup process—they provide opportunities to directly engage students in the larger project. The workshop also included a visit to several sites on the Grand Cal to see the dredging work in progress as well to walk around a finished site—Roxana Marsh.
Caitie McCoy, IISG environmental social scientist, has been helping keep residents informed during the dredging. She saw the Grand Cal project as an opportunity to connect students with their environment. “The cleanup and restoration of the Grand Calumet River is brightening the northwest Indiana landscape,” she explained. “This work transforms space into places that students can visit, perform stewardship work, and develop pride in their local environment. Environmental educators teach students that nature is in their backyard, but for these students, high quality nature is in their backyard, right here in East Chicago, Indiana.”
At one point, the Grand Cal was referred to as the most polluted river in the country. Through the remediation process, more than 2,000,000 cubic yards of sediment have been removed from this waterway, which runs through a highly-populated region. If funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative continues and non-federal cost share partners are secured, the river work could finish as early as 2019.
A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy.
Residents living near sediment remediation projects can now stay up-to-date on cleanup goals and milestones with GreatLakesMud.org. Developed by IISG, this comprehensive site provides information on waterways selected for cleanup and restoration through the Great Lakes Legacy Act.
At the heart of Great Lakes Mud are site-specific pages that identify contaminants of concern and outline plans for cleanup and habitat restoration. Here, visitors will find the latest on dredging schedules, truck routes, opportunities for community involvement, and more.
The website also provides insight into how Legacy Act projects are chosen and designed and explains how cleanup strategies like dredging and capping are able to remove the dangers of contaminated sediment while improving aquatic habitats.
Illustrative photos and videos bring these processes to life and help viewers understand how project components that often span several years fit together.
The Great Lakes Legacy Act was passed in 2002 to accelerate sediment cleanup in Areas of Concern, waterways blighted by decades of industrial discharges and poor municipal sewage practices. Since then, the program has cleaned up nearly 3 million cubic yards of contaminated sediment and restored acres of habitat.
For additional information or to request that your waterbody be added to the website, contact Caitie McCoy.
We talk a lot about the environmental benefits of sediment remediation. These are hard to miss—a trip to the river or harbor is often all it takes to confirm that the aquatic habitat is on the mend. The role of cleanup projects on local economies can be harder to pin down, but the impacts are just as striking. Brandon Steppan, IISG’s new communications intern, has the story.
I’ve lived in the city all my life. With the exception of a few parks and forest preserves, I never really saw environmental health as being all that connected to the welfare of my community. The only rivers that ever made the news were the Chicago River on St. Patrick’s Day and the Des Plaines River whenever it flooded—especially if that meant Gene and Jude’s, an iconic hot dog stand in River Grove and arguably the best place to get a Chicago-style hot dog, would have to shut down for repairs.
What I’ve learned about other Great Lakes communities in the short time I’ve been with IISG has already made me reevaluate just how valuable a healthy river can be—not just in terms of environmental integrity, but in dollars and cents. Results of economic studies of Great Lakes Areas of Concern (AOCs) have listed the values of what a clean waterbody would be for those communities, with numbers ranging from $6 million for one small neighborhood to $19 billion for all 31 original AOCs in the U.S. To get these numbers, economists and social scientists looked at money brought in from tourism, real estate values, and residents’ willingness to pay for a cleaner waterway.
One of the more remarkable returns came from a 2004 examination of the Waukegan Harbor AOC in Illinois. An analysis of housing data and resident perceptions determined that proximity to the PCB-ridden harbor substantially drove down property values. When surveyed, Waukegan homeowners revealed they would be willing to pay more for their property if it meant full cleanup of the harbor—a collective value of $436 million, much more than the projected cost for remediation.
My initial reaction to these reports was a mixture of confusion and surprise. But as I took into account the number of people in each area and how they rely on their local rivers not just for livelihood but for quality of life, the numbers no longer seemed all that surprising. The hazards of a toxic river bed aren’t always obvious, and unfortunately, neither are the benefits of remediation. Having these numbers available helps create a conversation where those benefits are no longer vaguely environmental, but economically tangible. ***Photo from the Waukegan Port District.