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.
Victoria Wallace is interning with Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant (IISG) as a recent graduate of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign with a B.S. in Integrative Biology and a B.A. in Global Studies.
Laying a foundation
On the first day of my internship, I brought a suitcase to work. I was leaving Champaign-Urbana that afternoon to begin a weeklong journey traveling up and down the western coast of Lake Michigan, from Chicago to Sheboygan to Milwaukee. The main event was the 2018 Great Lakes Areas of Concern Conference, held this year in Sheboygan, which was to be an immersive introduction to the themes and issues addressed during my internship.
The next morning, my new supervisor, Caitie Nigrelli, trotted me around the U.S. EPA office in Chicago, introducing me to her colleagues. It was the beginning of a whirlwind week of introductions, and I had to quickly learn to explain who I was and how my work would be relevant to a world I’d only just entered. A world, I came to learn, that was ruled by acronyms.
It quickly became hard for me to explain my internship to friends and family without clarifying at least three or four acronyms—shorthand used so ubiquitously by a small sphere of professionals that they often forget how foreign the strings of letters are to laypeople. And I was not much different when I arrived at this bustling conference in Sheboygan. Even though I studied biology and had been involved in research on aquatic invasive species in the Great Lakes as an undergraduate at the University of the Illinois, I had never heard anyone talk about the Areas of Concern. That morning in the EPA office, I even asked a project manager what “AOC” stands for, unaware of just how green I was.
Learning about Areas of Concern
Over the course of my internship, I have come to see this world with much greater clarity, gaining familiarity not just with the terminology, but with many of the people who undertake these massive projects. The Areas of Concern (AOCs for short) are geographic areas, usually rivers and estuaries, throughout the Great Lakes that have undergone serious environmental degradation. Most of them have suffered historically from industrial and municipal pollution, often leaving behind a legacy of sediments containing toxic concentrations of substances such as PCBs, PAHs and heavy metals.
Because of their industrial histories and gradual degradation, the AOCs are also often some of the most economically depressed areas in the region. The list of AOC communities reads almost like a roll call of rust belt cities: Cleveland, Ohio; Detroit, Mich.; Milwaukee, Wis.; Buffalo, N.Y.; Erie, Pa.; and Gary, Ind., all lie near or within Areas of Concern. And that’s just six of the 43 AOCs.
New restaurants, shops, condos and boat slips line the Sheboygan River.
One of those 43 is the Sheboygan River AOC, a location specifically chosen for the conference not because of the extent of its blight, but for the significance of its transformation. New development, an active harbor and a slew of recreational opportunities are a testament to the work of the AOC specialists—and to the social value of restoring a degraded resource. This is the final chapter of AOC restoration, when the community regains access to a waterfront it had turned its back on, sees its beauty and its potential, and adopts practices that promote its long-term health.
Wallace helped fourth grade students from East Chicago, Ind. discover the oddities and marvels of nature at the Grand Calumet Stewardship Day at a macroinvertebrate station.
After the crucible that was the AOC conference, I went on to see the Milwaukee Estuary AOC, helped facilitate a stewardship event in the Grand Calumet River AOC, and toured two sites in the infamous Cuyahoga River AOC. I’ve also produced outreach materials for the Muskegon Lake and St. Louis River AOCs. Most importantly, I’ve worked with Caitie to design a research project to better understand the social transformation after the remediation and restoration work is done. It’s being dubbed “revitalization” in the AOC world, and it’s changing how we think about environmental restoration.
If restoring a river can revitalize a community, what does that mean for the future of the Great Lakes? Can the history of exploitation be replaced with a narrative of stewardship, growth, and mutual benefit? I think that there’s a chance it can, but there needs to be a concerted effort. The research I’ve helped develop will push things in that direction by asking the AOC world to confront the question, “Who are we doing all of this for?” And, as a newly-minted environmental scientist, that’s certainly a question I’ll keep in mind as my career develops and matures.
When a 180-foot ship marked with the words “U.S. ENVIRONMENTAL PROTECTION AGENCY” docks on the shores of one of the Great Lakes or their connecting channels, people take notice. The research vessel Lake Guardian has incited curiosity for over 25 years as it has carried scientists across all five Great Lakes to collect and analyze samples of water, aquatic life, sediments, and air.
Last year, IISG completed a project to answer frequently asked questions about the ship and to communicate the important work done on board to monitor and protect the world’s largest surface freshwater system.
Allison Neubauer, Joel Davenport, and Kristin TePas received an APEX Award of Excellence for the colorful display they created about the R/V Lake Guardian. Easily transported and exhibited from one port to the next, the display is made up of two large posters that use graphics and accessible language to communicate key facts about the ship, such as its size and berthing capacity, and provide a glimpse into the scientific sampling processes and Great Lakes research topics that the vessel facilitates.
Since making its debut last spring the display has proven to be a hit with people drawn to the ship. In particular, the eye-catching infographics designed by Davenport have been the subject of praise.
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.
This post, written by Kathryn Meyer and Todd Nettesheim, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, originally appeared on the International Joint Commission website.
Out on the Great Lakes, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Lake Guardian research vessel is not your typical ship.
It has the usual pilot house, cabin rooms, and galley, but this 180-foot research vessel has a few extra special features. Those include three onboard laboratories; a Rosette water sampler for measuring conductivity, temperature and depth; and multiple devices for sediment collection. These additions allow researchers to analyze water, sediment, and biological data while the Lake Guardian travels across the Great Lakes.
Also special is the collaborative group of scientists, from the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office (GLNPO) and other government agencies and universities, working onboard to collect and analyze samples to monitor the health of the Great Lakes. The overarching goal of the science performed onboard is to understand the chemical, physical, and biological changes in the lakes to help inform fishery and water quality managers.
The Lake Guardian is a floating laboratory essential to many Great Lakes long-term monitoring programs, with about 25 years of data collected since its first voyage on the lakes in 1991. Starting out on Lake Michigan, the ship samples the lakes twice a year as part of the routine spring and summer surveys. The ship weaves across each lake to reach specified sampling stations. Onboard, scientists and crew work around the clock to ensure that each station is sampled as the ship passes by Great Lakes icons including the Mackinac Bridge, Welland Canal, Soo Locks, and Isle Royale.
Other parts of the Great Lakes are sampled by the EPA’s research vessel Mudpuppy II, a 33-foot shallow vessel designed for studies to determine the nature and extent of contaminated sediment in Great Lakes nearshore areas.
In August, EPA scientists from GLNPO collaborated with scientists from Buffalo State, Cornell University, University of Chicago, and University of Minnesota-Duluth to complete the Lake Guardian’s 2016 Summer Survey.
The survey consists of 97 stations where scientists collect water, phytoplankton, zooplankton, benthos (invertebrates that live on the bottom of the lakes), and sediment samples. Each station starts with the Rosette sampler plunging into the water to retrieve water samples at different depths on the starboard side, while on the aft deck plankton nets are cast into the water.
On some stations, a ponar sampler also is dropped to the bottom of the lake to scoop up sediment and collect benthos. Once the samples are back onboard, they are either immediately analyzed in one of the ship’s labs or preserved for analysis on land. The water samples help to track nutrient concentrations among other water chemistry parameters. The biological samples help us track changes and better understand the lower food web in the lakes.
The month of sample collection and analysis, knowledge-sharing and comradery onboard the Lake Guardian highlights the shared commitment to protect the health of the Great Lakes.
For example, GLNPO began monitoring nutrient concentrations in Lake Erie in 1983 to assess the effectiveness of phosphorus load reduction programs initiated by the 1983 phosphorus load supplement to the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement (GLWQA). Data showed that the lake responded to the phosphorus load reductions and in-lake total phosphorus concentrations approached targets in the late 1980s. Our data also documented the re-eutrophication of Lake Erie that began in the early 1990s.
When the ship is not completing one of the long-term annual spring and summer surveys, the vessel supports additional monitoring efforts across the lakes. These include monitoring dissolved oxygen levels in Lake Erie and supporting collaborative science as part of the Cooperative Science and Monitoring Initiative (CSMI) – a binational program established under the GLWQA. The US EPA and Environment and Climate Change Canada work with a broad array of partners to implement CSMI in fulfillment of GLWQA requirements.
This year, CSMI was focused in Lake Superior, where more than 200 water samples, 150 plankton nets, and 600 ponar grabs were performed across the lake to assess the long-term status of the lower food web. Each year, the Lake Guardian also serves as a floating classroom for educators throughout the Great Lakes thanks to programs run by the Center for Great Lakes Literacy.
Interested in learning more about the R/V Lake Guardian? Check out the EPA Great Lakes website. You can also check out information from one of our partners, Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant, and the Lake Guardian Twitter page to stay up-to-date and see if she’s coming to a port near you.
Editor’s Note: There are 78 science vessels active in the Great Lakes, each more than 25 feet long, and smaller boats which assist conservation officers, scientists, educators and resource managers (See this interactive map). Over the years, these operators have formed the Great Lakes Association of Science Ships (GLASS), with 68 American and Canadian participating organizations networking and providing information about these vessels at www.CanAmGlass.org.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.
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.
During the summer of 2014 sixteen science teachers from all around the Great Lakes region spent a week on board the U.S. E.P.A ship R/V Lake Guardian on Lake Erie as part of the Shipboard and Shoreline Science Workshop. Sponsored by the Center for Great Lakes Literacy, Ohio Sea Grant, Pennsylvania Sea Grant, and the U. S. Environmental Protection Agency, teachers were connected with scientists in first hand explorations of the ecology, geology, and bio-geochemical processes of Lake Erie.
Fifth grade middle school science teacher David Murduck was introduced to many ideas for his classroom and field activities from his experience on the research ship:
Although I knew the experience on the R/V Guardian was going to be amazing, I never dreamed that the workshop would have such an impact on my students. Towards the beginning of the school year my class spends a lot of time learning about the importance of qualitative and quantitative observation. This year my students were able to apply their understanding of metric measurement while learning about the Great Lakes. Students were engaged in an activity where they had to use yarn to outline, label, and organize the shorelines of the Great Lakes to scale. After graphing the shoreline metric distances, students compared the total shoreline distances of the Great Lakes to the U.S. shoreline along the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico. Students then compared and contrasted the size of the Great Lakes to the total volume of water each lake holds, the metric mass of commercial fish caught, and the human population surrounding each Great Lake. This activity enabled me to reinforce the importance of metric measurement as we used metric rulers, triple-beam balances, and graduated cylinders in class. This also set the stage for in-depth discussion of the Great Lakes and the problems they face.
As the year progressed, students learned more about the Great Lakes, and specifically the Lake Erie watershed that they live in. Students learned about research that scientists aboard the R/V Guardian were completing. Research included a study of native and invasive species by Ruth Briland of The Ohio State University, a study of the presence of plastics by Sam Mason from State University of New York, and a study of chemicals and E. coli bacteria by Steve Mauro from Gannon University. This led to a better understanding of the importance of water quality. Macro-invertebrate studies and the use of water quality monitoring equipment lent for use by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency allowed real-world application as students studied water in local tributaries of the Lake Erie watershed.
Follow-up allowed students to complete individual in-depth research related to invasive species of the Great Lakes. This information was presented with the use of visual projects such as PowerPoint, dioramas, or posters in class.
Students then applied what they had learned throughout the year by participating in an important stewardship project. With a unique partnership between our school and the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, students planted native oak trees for the park. Park ranger John DeMuth came to each 5thgrade science class and discussed how the invasive Privot plant forces out native plants along the Cuyahoga River. He explained that native plants have deeper root systems that hold the soil more securely and slow erosion of the river banks. He also explained that unlike the past when pollution was the main
problem in the Cuyahoga River watershed, invasive species are now the real concern.
In culmination, with the help of high school horticulture students from the Trumbull County Technical and Career Center and park rangers from the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, my students learned teamwork as they used gloves, eye protection, and loppers supplied by the national park to cut and stack the invasive plants along the river bank. National park employees later use controlled use of herbicides on the stumps to kill the plants. What an amazing year!
Last month, the U.S. EPA awarded University of Illinois at Chicago and University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign first and second prizes in their Campus RainWorks Challenge. The national competition recognizes student-led green infrastructure plans and projects to manage stormwater on campus. Eliana Brown, has been following the UIUC plan from the beginning. The first time I heard that landscapes could be designed to improve water quality, it was a revelation. I knew about the highly-effective bioremediation treatment cells at industrial facilities. But, the fact that the landscapes we walk through in our daily lives could have that power was exciting. What came to be known as “green infrastructure” is an elegant blend of landscape architecture and civil engineering that places of higher learning should embrace.
The EPA Office of Water seems to agree. Since 2012, it has invited students to design innovative green infrastructure projects to show how managing rainfall in a more natural way can benefit their community and the environment.
Because I’m fond of the small creek running through the University of Illinois’ engineering college—known as Boneyard Creek—I have always wanted to see an entry from my campus. This year, I got my wish and then some. U.S. EPA announced on Earth Day that “Reverse Engineering: The Engineering Campus as Catalyst,” a master plan designed by a multi-disciplinary team of UIUC students under the direction of landscape architecture instructor Tawab Hlimi earned 2nd place. According to the EPA, 64 teams from 23 states submitted entries.
The plan focuses on improving water quality in Boneyard Creek by installing green streets, roof catchments, bioswales, and rain gardens in the surrounding area. Native plants and pollinator habitats are also proposed to boost the creeks’ ecological role and create more recreational opportunities. Building off this success, Hlimi and teaching assistant Faezeh Ashtiani showed the plan along with the work of their spring semester students in an exhibit called “Reverse Engineering: Reconfiguring the Urban-Riparian Interface” at [CO] [LAB] in downtown Urbana. Students expanded on the Campus RainWorks plan upstream and in other parts of campus, including three visions of Dorner Driver Retention Pond that add water quality filtration to the existing water storage function.
Looking to the future, Hlimi has applied for a Student Sustainability Committee grant to build a multi-purpose demonstration rain garden.
A closer look at web tools and sites that boost research and empower Great Lakes communities to secure a healthy environment and economy.
Monitoring data that used to take months to find and retrieve now takes just minutes with Great Lakes Monitoring. The new web application makes it easy to view and analyze decades of high-quality nutrient, contaminant, and water characteristic data collected by universities and government agencies across the region, including the U.S. EPA Great Lakes National Program Office. Interactive maps and menus provide an overview of monitoring locations and allow users to drill down to detailed data profiles for each site and compare specific parameters across multiple sites. From the Explore Trends view, users can see basin-wide patterns for environmental characteristics like phosphorus, chlorophyll a, nitrogen, and mercury.
The cutting-edge tool also allows researchers to create and download their own data sets for the locations, sources, environmental characteristics, and dates that most interest them. And a variety of available file types make offline use easy.
In addition to improving data access, Great Lakes Monitoring makes it easier for researchers, universities, and agencies to share data with the public.