Company Wants To Test Fish After The Morrow Dam Crisis

Aug 12, 2020

Kalamazoo River fishing guide Jon Lee holds a handful of silt from the river near the Kalamazoo Nature Center.
Credit Courtesy photo / Jon Lee/Devin Bloom

A company that’s part of the Superfund cleanup of the Kalamazoo River has concerns about the Morrow Dam drawdown. Paper manufacturer Georgia-Pacific wants to know if PCBs have washed out of Morrow Lake near Galesburg. The company says it can find out by testing fish, but the state has a problem with the plan.

Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, the company that owns Morrow Dam, lowered Morrow Lake last year. That’s allowed a huge amount of silt to wash downriver, into the Superfund site where Georgia Pacific is one company cleaning up persistent, toxic chemicals known as polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.

“I think it’s pretty reasonable to assume that more PCBs have come down the river,” Georgia-Pacific spokesman Rick Kimble told WMUK.

Kimble said the cleanup has cost more than $120 million so far, with more dredging set for the fall and spring according to the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Georgia-Pacific wants to compare PCB levels in smallmouth bass above the dam with smallmouth bass downstream. These would be little fish that hatched this year. Kimble said a young fish gives a better picture of nearby pollution.

“Whereas if you sample a three-year-old fish for example, you’ve got a three-year-old fish that has traveled different parts of the river, picked up different things and it’s not a very good indicator,” he said.

Georgia-Pacific has asked Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources for permission to sample smallmouth bass. But DNR Fisheries Biologist Matt Diana said the agency will probably turn the company down. The sediment from the lake likely smothered many smallmouth bass eggs this year.

“You’re not getting the kind of spawning you normally would,” he said. “Populations are likely going to be depressed because of that, so we’re really concerned about that population.”

Diana said the PCB cleanup does call for periodic smallmouth bass testing, though not this year. He disagrees with Georgia-Pacific that fish sampling could show the drawdown has led to further PCB pollution downstream. Diana says unfortunately, fish sampling from previous years has shown a lot of variation among individuals.

“It makes it really tough to go out and sample from one event like the Morrow drawdown and say that we’re seeing changes based on that,” he said.

Georgia-Pacific says it could restock the river with smallmouth bass. But Diana suggested that would amount to fixing what's not broken, at least not yet, and would go against the agency’s duty to protect the fish in the river.

He said the company could sample the water or sediment instead. The DNR is expected to decide on the permit in the next few days.