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Two Kalamazoo-area lawmakers hope to make polluters clean up their "messes"

Close up of hands holding dark, runny muck in both palms
Courtesy photo
Jon Lee/Kalamazoo River Guide
Professional angling tour-leader Jon Lee, of Kalamazoo River Guide, documented the silting of the river in spring 2020

Update: the State Senate Committee on Natural Resources has scheduled a hearing for SB 813 on Wednesday, February 9.

A bill empowering Michigan environmental regulators to order cleanups could get a hearing in a State Senate committee as early as next week. State Senator Sean McCann introduced SB 813 after a dam operator dumped hundreds of thousands of cubic yards of sediment in the Kalamazoo River.

Democratic State Representative Julie Rogers is sponsoring a parallel proposal in the State House. She said either bill would give “emergency powers in this kind of situation” to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

The proposal

McCann said Republican State Senator Ed McBroom, the Republican chair of the State Senate’s Natural Resources Committee, has indicated he may schedule a hearing as soon as next week.

McCann proposed the legislation after Morrow Dam operator STS Hydropower allowed a large amount of sediment to wash into the river from the Morrow Lake reservoir. The company failed to contain the muck after drawing down the lake in the fall of 2019, so it could make repairs on the dam. The project stalled and the lake remained low for more than a year.

The sediment has buried fish spawning habitats and swamped boat launches. Under pressure from state regulators, last spring STS and its parent company Eagle Creek Renewable Energy scooped out a tiny fraction of the silt, then abandoned plans for more dredging.

“They went and sort of quixotically cleaned up a small portion of sediment and then just stopped,” McCann said.

McCann said legislation is needed “because the company is not cleaning up its own mess of its own volition at this point.”

Whatever the fate of the bills, EGLE still hopes to reach a settlement with STS Hydropower with provisions for at least a partial cleanup, said Kyle Alexander, District Supervisor for EGLE’s Kalamazoo District Office Water Resources Division.

Alexander said the settlement process is ongoing, but added that the company has not met with EGLE for several months.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in January 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. Before that she covered a variety of topics, including environmental issues, for Bloomington, Indiana NPR and PBS affiliates WFIU and WTIU. She’s also written and produced stories for the Pacifica Network and WYSO Public Radio in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Sehvilla holds a B.A. in French from Earlham College and an M.A. in journalism from Indiana University.