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.
Last week, I joined U.S. EPA project managers from the Great Lakes National Program Office at the “Zephyr” site in Muskegon, Michigan (named for the Zephyr Oil Refinery that once existed on the property). Zephyr lies within the Muskegon Lake Area of Concern, a designation given because of the environmental degradation in its past. The EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) are about to begin a large-scale remediation to clean up the petroleum and lead pollution that remains in the sediment.
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.
Visit www.greatlakesmud.org for more information and updates on the project.
Ben Wegleitner is the new IISG social science outreach assistant supporting IISG Environmental Social Scientist Caitie Nigrelli.
Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant is a part of University of Illinois Extension and Purdue Extension.