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EPA Order Gives Hope For PCB Removal Behind Old Dams

Mark Mills with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources closes the gate to the temporary water control structure upstream of the Otsego Township Dam. The structure is there to help take pressure off of the dam while the cleanup takes place.
Rebecca Thiele

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources has wanted to tear down dams along the Kalamazoo River since the ‘80s - to create better habitats for fish and other wildlife. But leftover PCB contamination behind the dams has kept that from happening. Now, due to an Environmental Protection Agency order, the Otsego Township Dam can finally be removed. That gives other dam owners hope that they can get rid of their crumbling dams too.

We've realized how close it really was to failing

The DNR put a temporary dam of sorts upstream from the original township dam. The structure is expected to hold for three years - just enough time to clean up the PCBs behind the dam and remove it. 

So why does the DNR want to tear down these dams? Dams affect the habitats of fish and other life in the river. They lower river levels, change water temperatures, and stop some fish from migrating. 

Credit Rebecca Thiele, WMUK

More importantly, the Kalamazoo River dams are falling apart - and with toxic PCBs still lurking behind them, they’re a huge liability for dam owners like the DNR.

Mark Mills is a wildlife biologist with the DNR. He says in just the last few years, the Otsego Township Dam went downhill fast. Chucks of concrete were crumbling off and water and sediment was spilling off to the sides. 

“We’ve realized how close it really was to failing,” he says. 

So the Environmental Protection Agency had to act fast. The responsible parties weren’t scheduled to start removing PCBs behind the dam for at least another year. But in April, the EPA ordered them to start work by this August.

In a press release, Region 5 Superfund Director Richard Karl said the EPA made the order because quote, “EPA’s effort to reach an agreement with Georgia-Pacific, Weyerhaeuser and International Paper to conduct the PCB removal was unsuccessful.”

Mark Mills says the order shows that the EPA means business - that this cleanup behind the dams needs to be a priority. That’s good news for other dam owners along the river. Otsego City Manager Thad Beard says Otsego took over the Otsego City Dam in 1999.

“There is a running joke here that is sadly partially true in the sense that…first off we began that I really hope that this dam is removed before I retire. The mayor jokes that he hopes the dam is removed before he leaves this Earth - just because of the appearance that things move so slow,” says Beard.

Beard hopes the EPA will speed things along in Otsego - just like it did for the township dam. He says, right now, the city can’t even secure grant money to remove the dam because funders need a guarantee that the PCBs will be cleaned up within about five years.

Why five years? Beard says that’s the average lifespan of temporary dam structures - like the one in Otsego Township. Those temporary dams can only hold back the sediment for so long.

“So that’s what we’re really waiting on now is something from the EPA or something from the responsible parties that indicate that the sediments will be removed within a five year window, so that we can begin our process of putting in the control structure and removing the dam with EPA financial assistance,” he says.

Beard says the city’s Downtown Development Authority wants to make the area near the dam a “destination” - with things like a boat launch and a banquet hall.

“Whether it’s fishing, or just canoeing, or kayaking - whatever fashion may be. But we want to encourage people to be there but also provide the opportunity for people to be there to use it as an amenity rather than a liability as it is now,” says Beard.

Mark Mills says the DNR would like to remove the state-owned Trowbridge Dam next. For now, he’s looking forward to removing barriers for canoers and kayakers in Otsego Township.

“Right now if you were to go down the river you have to get out of your canoe, kayak or whatever you’re in and carry it over the dam. In the future, you’ll be able to float through that section,” says Mills.

“The real hope is that we’ll be able to provide recreational opportunities that are safe and enjoyable right in that section. And I think this project is going to result in a lot of improvements on that level.”

The EPA says it expects to finish the clean up behind the Otsego Township Dam by spring 2018.

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