Contaminated sediment is a major problem in the Great Lakes region. Dozens of lakes and rivers are lined with sediment full of chemicals that are killing plants and animals and poisoning area residents. In the second part of our series on contaminated sediment, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports on some of the major obstacles facing those who want to clean up the toxic hot spots:
Contaminated sediment is a major problem in the Great Lakes region. Dozens of lakes and rivers are lined with sediment full of chemicals that are killing plants and animals and poisoning area residents. In the second part of our series on contaminated sediment, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Jonathan Ahl reports on some of the major obstacles facing those that want to clean up the toxic hot spots.
(ambient sound – White Lake)
It is a clear and cool day on the shores of White Lake in Western Michigan. While
the crisp wind and blue waters may make this lake seem clean and clear, this is one of the
43 areas of concern in the Great Lakes region – places the federal government has designated as containing dangerously high levels of pollutants. Even with that government designation, there is not always a consensus that there is a problem at a particular location. Rick Rediske is with Grand Valley State University, and has studied dozens of contaminated sediment sites. He says while pollution standards have been set for water and soil, there are no standards for defining contaminated sediment. He says since there are no rules on how many parts per million of pollutants like mercury or lead are acceptable in sediment, there is not a definitive answer to basic questions about the safety of a body of water.
“You can put together reasons why you think there’s a concern about the
sediment contamination, and somebody else can look at it too and put together a totally
contrary position by looking at other factors and twisting them a bit. So there is a lot of
wiggle room when you are operating in a situation where there is no numerical criteria.”
That means a company that has been polluting a lake or other body of water for years can
mount a reasonable defense to avoid blame for contaminated sediment – and in turn avoid
paying for the clean ups that often total tens of millions of dollars. Rediske says he
doubts there will ever be standards on polluted sediment levels because the material’s
very makeup is so complex. Michael Palermo is a contaminated sediment expert with
the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. He says for years, researchers have focused on ways
to clean up polluted air, water, and soil.
“But sediments don’t really fall clearly into any of those categories. There are aspects related to all three of them, and so magnitude of the problem and the nature of the problem, I like to think of it almost as a fourth environmental medium.”
Coming to a consensus on what areas are contaminated is just the first of many hurdles
that must be overcome before a site can be cleaned. Then communities have to decide how to
treat the contaminated area. Options include putting down a cap over the polluted area,
dredging and removing the sediment, and removing the pollutants from the sediment while it is
at the bottom of the lake or river. Each method has advantages and disadvantages, and there
can often be a protracted fight over which method is best for a particular site. One of the
most recent examples is the Hudson River. General Electric, which legally dumped PCB’s into
the Hudson until the late 1970’s, has fought for several years the possibility of dredging
portions of the river. GE officials claim the PCBs are now locked up in the river sediment, and dredging will only serve to release those chemicals back into the water. The EPA however recently ordered limited dredging, saying methods that would contain the PCBs in place would not work. GE continues to fight that decision. Even when a community can agree that an area needs to be cleaned, and agrees on a method to do it, there is the issue of money. Those groups often look to the government for help, and are often disappointed. Cameron Wilson is a staff member for Michigan Congressman Vern Ehlers.
“There are federal resources for dealing with contaminated sediment. But the issue from a nationwide perspective is so vast and issue is controversial and complex that I don’t think we have begun to scratch the surface on what we need.”
Wilson says Ehlers, along with other members of Congress in the Great Lakes region plan to reintroduce legislation to specifically fund cleaning contaminated sediment sites in the Great Lakes. Meanwhile, many of the funding problems could perhaps be solved if there were a cheaper way to remove contaminated sediment from lakes and rivers. A new Illinois Company may be headed in that direction. Peoria Dredging LLC is a new company that is developing a non-hydraulic dredger and sediment transportation system.
But this new technology is in its infancy. The new company hopes to have a full sized
prototype ready for testing in two years. Company officials say the success of the project is also dependent on federal funds to help development. The same federal funds that many
Great Lakes communities would like to see used to clean toxic hot spots with technology that
already exists. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Jonathan Ahl.