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Toxic PCBs behind aging Kalamazoo River dams pose new risks

Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

A long time ago,  paper mills dumped toxic PCBs, or polychlorinated biphenyls, into the Kalamazoo River. Though the Environmental Protection Agency has been working to remove them, there are still PCBs lurking behind the river’s dams...and those dams are getting too old to hold them.

Chris Freiburger of the Michigan Department of Natural Resourceswants to remove dams from the Kalamazoo River to restore the natural habitat.

“Not only do we stick this barrier in place and it stops fish from moving up stream from reproducing," he says. "They can’t get up to the critical habitat. It can throw off their whole life stage for all of the reasons these fish need to move.”

Many of these dams aren’t used for hydropower anymore. They’re old and brittle. The American Society of Civil Engineers says dams have an average lifespan of about 50 years. And all of the dams the DNR owns on the river are past retirement.

“The real interest on the part of the department was to actually remove these structures," Freiburger says. "That was the intent when the dams were taken over was to remove them. But it became very complicated because of the contaminants behind the dams from the paper waste from upstream.”

The DNR has been spending roughly $15,000 a year to maintain each dam — patching leaks and making temporary fixes on a structure waiting to break. Mark Mills of the DNR says, if the dams fail and PCBs float down the river, the DNR could face a serious lawsuit.

Steve Hamilton is President of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. He says the biggest threat PCBs pose to humans is when they eat contaminated fish. And despite signs and advisories against it, Hamilton says people do eat the fish—even in Portage Creek.  

“And this is the creek that’s involved in a time critical removal action because of the discovery just a couple years ago of very high contamination in the sediments," says Hamilton. "You can find people up and down the river from Battle Creek all the way down to Allegan and beyond that regularly eat the fish.”

PCBs can cause a variety of health problems like negative neurological effects and developmental disabilities in children. Hamilton says people who eat the fish might not notice symptoms for several years, which can make them hard to link to PCBs.

To avoid liability, the DNR has to hold the dams together until the Environmental Protection Agency decides to remove the PCBs. The EPA helped remove one dam in Plainwell in 2007, but that was a ‘time-critical removal action.’ All of the other dams have to go through the slow Superfund cleanup process. The Superfund site is broken into seven areas, stretching from the City of Plainwell all the way to Lake Michigan.

In an e-mail response, the U.S. EPA said the remedial investigation—the game plan for about half of the river—could take up to four years. And that’s just the investigation. Mills says just the initial negotiations on the Plainwell Dam took two years.

“There from those two years or so of negotiation, it was three years of field work to complete the actual remediation project," says Mills. "So they did one side of the river one year and the other side the next year. And then final work I believe the last year, which included taking out the water control structure and some of those temporary structures that they had to put in place. So it’s three years of work. So almost five years.”

Mills says the dam that’s in the worst shape, the Trowbridge Dam, is so far down the river that the EPA won’t even be able to look at it for many years to come. The good news: Mills says the EPA will likely make the dams a priority if the DNR has the cash to remove them. The bad news: finding the money has been tough. Mills says funders want results. The DNR applied for money through National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) through something called the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, but was turned down.

“They love the project, they think it’s a great project," Mills says. "But unfortunately, the question came up, ‘If we pay through this grant to put that water control structure in, how many years is it going to be until that water control structure comes out and you have a free-flowing river?’ And at this point and time we don’t have the answer to that.”

Progress may seem at a standstill, but Steve Hamilton has this advice:

“Local community support for this is really important. It does influence the thinking of the federal and state agencies and the companies involved. So if people become educated about this and regularly express their desire to see this problem fixed to their elected officials and the EPA and the DEQ, it’s more likely to be high on their list of priorities.”

This story was produced with help from the Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources.

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