Dozens of rivers and lakes in the Great Lakes region contain contaminated sediment. In the first of a three part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports on the severity of this problem facing the region:


Dozens of rivers and lakes in the Great Lakes region contain contaminated sediment.
In the first of a three part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports on the severity of this problem facing the region.

(ambient sound – digging for worms)

A woman who only gives her name as Marsha is digging for worms along the shore of Muskegon Lake in Western Michigan. She says worms at the bait store are too expensive, so she comes out here every week or so to look under rocks and dig up night crawlers from the damp and silty soil on the lakefront.

(more ambient sound – more digging)

The Norton Shores resident says she fishes in the lake, and eats what she catches. While
she will eat the animals that live in Muskegon Lake, she says she has to be very careful
around the water. Marsha says she is seeing a doctor because of rashes and burning skin
that cropped up after spending too much time in the lake:

“I don’t stand in it anymore. I used to stand in it, but it was burning me, I was getting big burns. And then I started getting them on my hands. Now I have to wear gloves on my hands when I fish and touch the water.”

One possible reason for her skin troubles could be the massive amount of contaminated sediment in the waters – pollutants that have entered the lake over the past one hundred
years. Many of those pollutants settled in the sediment and silt that rests at the bottom of the lake, but some are also spread throughout the water itself. Muskegon Lake is one of 43 places that have been designated by the federal government as areas of concern in the Great Lakes Region. These toxic hot spots are bodies of water where pollutant levels are considered dangerous. Tanya Cabala is an activist with the White Lake Public Advisory Council, a citizens activist group trying to clean up contaminated sediment. She says years of Great Lakes residents allowing large industrial plants to locate right next to lakes and rivers is taking its toll.

“Where we live, we made some deliberate choices in past decades to chose jobs and development and those kinds of things over protecting the environment. There was the attitude that you couldn’t have both.”

Cabala says a major focus for her group is to educate people on the dangers of toxic
sediment in the Great Lakes region. Amy Mucha is an analyst with the U.S. EPA. She
says levels of PCB’s, mercury and dioxins pose many long-term health risks to people
who eat the fish or drink the water from these areas, or even come in contact with the

“Impairment of reproductive ability, we have seen some of that in monkey studies. There have actually been some studies of children in the Great Lakes area in Michigan showing that women who ate contaminated fish out of the Great Lakes – their children had reduced IQ, children had reading difficulties and other kinds of learning difficulties.”

Mucha says since many of the health problems caused by polluted sediment take years to
manifest themselves in people, it is difficult to convince the public that there is an immediate need to fix the problem. The federal government has known about toxic sediment problems for more than fifteen years. That’s how long ago Congress first designated the Areas of Concern. Scott Cieniawski is with the U.S. EPA’s Great Lakes Office. He says since then, only one million cubic yards of sediment have been dredged from the Great Lakes toxic hot spots. That’s less than two percent of the estimated total of sixty million cubic yards of polluted sediment. Cieniawski says there is still a lot of work to do and projects to fund.

“We have to find a way to start coordinating at all levels and get the funding and get the technical people involved and actually start cleaning up. Because I think we know where the contamination is for the most part, and now its time to go get it.”

But Cieniawski says now could be a turning point in the battle to remove toxic sediment.
He says the research is done and an opportunity exists for a major effort to begin taking
action. But dredging toxic sediment sites faces many problems. Companies that are often responsible for the contamination are fighting efforts to clean the sites in an attempt to avoid the blame and cost involved. And the numerous layers of government agencies are contributing to a very fragmented, and often under funded, effort to solve this problem that still plagues many bodies of water in the Great Lakes region. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.