A commission that monitors the environmental health of the Great Lakes says current trends fall short of protecting the Great Lakes from pollution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark Brush reports:
A commission that monitors the environmental health of the Great Lakes says current trends fall
short of protecting the Great Lakes from pollution. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mark
Brush has more:
Under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement, the U.S. and Canada decided to reduce and
clean up pollution in the Great Lakes.
Thirty years have gone by… and now the commission that monitors the progress says that the
countries have yet to make a strong commitment to clean up the lakes.
Dennis Schornack is the U.S. Chair of the International Joint Commission.
“The public cannot always safely swim at Great Lakes beaches, nor safely eat
many of the fish from the Great Lakes.”
Schornack made the statement while presenting the Commission’s latest two-year report on the
lakes. This report echoes much of the criticisms of the Commission’s last report.
Schornack says despite the current focus on national security issues in Congress – it shouldn’t
overlook spending to clean up the Great Lakes. He says it’s a pressing public health issue.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mark Brush..
The Alcoa/Reynolds Company removes PCBs they once dumped into the St. Lawrence River. Photo by David Sommerstein.
Polluted sediments sit at the bottom of rivers and lakes across the Great Lakes region. They can affect water quality, wildlife and human health. More than 40 highly contaminated areas in the region have been identified by the EPA’s Great Lakes Office, but so far only about half of those sites have been cleaned up. This fall, dredging is taking place in at least three of those hot spots – all on rivers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports on the challenges of cleaning up a river bottom:
Polluted sediments sit at the bottom of rivers and lakes across the Great Lakes region. They can affect water quality, wildlife and human health. More than 40 highly contaminated areas in the region have been identified by the EPA’s Great Lakes Office.
But so far, only about half of those sites have been cleaned up. This fall, dredging is taking place in at least three of those hot spots, all on rivers. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Karen Kelly reports on the challenges of cleaning up a river bottom.
(Sound of dredging)
Geologist Dino Zack stands on the steps of a mobile home overlooking the St. Lawrence River. He watches as barges glide in and out of an area contained by a 38 hundred foot long steel wall. Each barge carries a crane that periodically drops a bucket into the river bottom, pulling up sediment contaminated with PCBs. The goal is to remove 80 thousand cubic yards of contaminated sediment. Zack’s trailer is the EPA headquarters for the dredging project. He’s an independent contractor working for the federal government, which is spearheading the operation. And he’ll spend the next couple of months watching the Alcoa-Reynolds Company remove the chemicals they once dumped in the river.
“I’ll observe them while they’re collecting their data to make sure they’re following the work plan. Then, I’ll bring all the data back, assemble it into tables and review it.”
Zack isn’t the only one keeping a close eye on the dredging project, which began in June.
There’s another EPA scientist here, as well as two members of the Army Corps of Engineers who are supervising the work. There’s also a representative from the St. Regis Mohawk reservation, which is downriver from the contaminated area.
The EPA ordered Alcoa-Reynolds to clean up the pollution in 1993. The PCBs were present in a flame retardant liquid the company used in its aluminum smelting process.
Over the years, the liquid drained into the river, contaminating sediments along the shoreline. The most polluted area contains 2000 parts per million of PCBs. That equals about one bad apple in a barrel-full. The goal is to leave only one part per million of PCBs in the sediment. Anne Kelly is the EPA’s project director for the site.
She says achieving that level in a river environment is a challenge.
“One of the biggest problems with dredging a river is that you’re working without really seeing where you’re working. The other problem is the issue of re-suspension, that whenever this bucket hits the sediments, it stirs up sediments and then it settles out again.”
One of the biggest concerns is that the disturbed sediments will move downstream.
In this case, they’d only have to travel a mile to reach the drinking water intake for the St. Regis Mohawk reservation. That means toxins could make it into the drinking water.
Local people have also expressed fears that the PCBs could contaminate the air as well.
The dredging project was temporarily suspended this summer when residents on nearby Cornwall Island complained of respiratory problems. But air quality tests found the dredging wasn’t to blame. Ken Jock is the tribe’s environmental director.
He says in addition to air and water quality concerns, the local people would like to see a healthier fish population. Some species have been contaminated with PCBs. And he says that’s why the tribe supports the dredging.
“We know the PCBs will be there in a thousand years and we’ll be here, and we’ll still want to eat the fish. So we think that any solution has to be a permanent solution.”
The Alcoa-Reynolds Company had wanted to place a gravel cap over the chemicals rather than dredge. But the EPA ordered them to remove the PCBs. Rick Esterline, the company’s project director, says they’re fully cooperating with the government.
“You’re required to clean it up, that’s the rules and regulations that we have in our country. Whether they come at you with court orders or whether you do it, it’s still you have to do it.”
The project is expected to cost the company 40 million dollars. That includes the eight million dollar reinforced steel wall around the contaminated area. Alcoa-Reynolds is also using a special electronic bucket to remove the sediment. The EPA’s Anne Kelly says this has become the bucket of choice for Great Lakes dredging projects.
“Based on the information that will be transferred to the operator on the barge, he’ll know if that bucket is completely sealed, which is very helpful because a clamshell bucket will begin to close and hit a rock… he won’t know it’s still open partially and begin to pull that up through the water column with materials basically pouring out of it.”
Kelly says every cleanup project requires a different approach. In Michigan, General Motors is using an environmental bucket and silt curtains to dredge the Saginaw River.
Engineers in Michigan’s Pine River built a steel wall and emptied out the water inside before dredging. The dredging in the St. Lawrence is expected to finish in November.
And it’s possible it won’t reduce the PCB levels to one part per million. The cleanup at the nearby General Motors plant fell short of that goal. If that happens, the EPA will require the company to cap the river bottom – and monitor the sediments, the water and the fish indefinitely. For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Karen Kelly.
More small river dams are being torn down around the U-S. In
fact, a recent report by conservation groups says several states in the
upper Midwest are leading the way at getting rid of dams that no longer
produce electricity. Environmentalists say tearing down thestructures
helps water quality. But some people who live near the dams feel like
they’re losing an old friend. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Chuck
Quirmbach prepared this report:
More small river dams are being torn down around the U.S. In fact, a recent report by conservation
groups says several states in the upper Midwest are leading the way at getting rid of dams that no
longer produce electricity. Environmentalists say tearing down the structures helps water quality.
But some people who live near the dams feel like they’re losing an old friend. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Chuck Quirmbach prepared this report:
(sound of rushing water)
“This is an excellent example of the state of many of the dams across Wisconsin and the fact they
are rapidly deteriorating.”
Stephanie Lindloff is standing on top of the Franklin Dam in Sheboygan Country. The rural area’s
about fifty miles north of Milwaukee. The Franklin Dam is about two stories high and half a
football field long. It was built in the 1850’s, to power a grist mill. But the mill is long gone.
And now, on its way to lake Michigan, the Sheboygan river pours through a small hole. That’s
slowly draining the impoundment, or lake behind the dam. Stephanie Lindloff says the hole is a
sign of advanced aging.
“This dam in particular, not unlike a lot of dams around the state, had a gate that was boarded up
and the wooden boards were what was holding the water back in the end of June, two lowermost
boards cracked and water started seeping out of impoundment… wasn’t an emergency situation, but
nonetheless there was a break in the dam.”
Lindloff is with the environmental group, The River Alliance of Wisconsin. She estimates it would
cost at least 350,000 dollars to fix the Franklin Dam. It might take only one-fourth of that
amount to tear it down. Besides saving money, Lindloff says removing the Franklin Dam would also
make the Sheboygan River healthier.
“Scientists agree dams devastate river systems. They continue to block natural functioning of
rivers, impact water quality, they block fish migration and spawning grounds.”
Lindloff says ten miles of the Sheboygan River and river shoreline could be improved if the
Franklin Dam comes out. But some people who live along the small lake are sounding off about the
“I mean the dam’s solid. It’s built solid.”
Kris Wilkins believes the Franklin Dam merely needs some repairs. She loves the small farm she has
along the lake, and has even taken to raising geese.
(sound of geese)
Wilkins predicts that removing the dam would drastically cut the size of the lake and harm the
value of her property.
“It’s gorgeous out here, we have all kinds of wildlife: green herring, blue herring, our geese,
fox, woodchucks all around, it’s just nature all the way.”
Wilkins and several of her neighbors are trying to create a lake district. That’s where local
people could assess themselves a tax to raise some of the money to fix the dam. The group’s
leader, Don Last, says he’s prepared to hike his own taxes.
“It’s really the only alternative we have to find the funds and possibly get matching money to
restore and maintain.”
But some wonder if the small number of folks in this rural township can raise enough cash. They
won’t get any help from the dam’s owner, which is the Franklin volunteer fire department. The
department no longer gets its firefighting water from the lake, and fire officials say they have
no money for dam repairs. A state bailout is unlikely too.
If the Franklin Dam comes down, it would join about fifty other Wisconsin dams that have been
removed in the last twenty years. Ohio and Pennsylvania have also taken out a sizeable number of
the old structures. Steve Born is a regional planner at the University of Wisconsin – Madison.
He’s written nationally about dam removals. Born says the entire Great Lakes region can benefit,
as long as officials keep a check on contaminated sediments that may have built up behind the
“There has to be provisions for either draining the impoundment… dredging these… moving them
to safe landfill sites… neutralizing them in some way. But they can’t be allowed to just
disperse throughout the system.”
Born is an advisor to trout unlimited, which is another of the groups pushing for dam removals. If
state and local governments go about removing dams carefully, Born and others will welcome the
site of more free-flowing streams.
(sound of stream)
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Chuck Quirmbach in Sheboygan County, Wisconsin.