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A company that polluted the Kalamazoo River has abandoned the cleanup effort, EGLE says

The dam has a modern-looking prism-shaped glass structure over it. Above is gray sky and powerlines
Sehvilla Mann

The state’s environmental agency says a company responsible for polluting the Kalamazoo River with large amounts of sediment has pulled out of plans for a cleanup.

Two years ago STS Hydropower lowered Morrow Lake so it could repair Morrow Dam, which it operates. Then the project stalled and the reservoir remained lowered until early this year. During the drawdown, silt poured into the river – the state estimates as much as 400,000 cubic yards.

Regulators say the muck threatens fish and mussels and has made several boat launches hard to access.

STS dredged a very small portion of the affected area earlier this year – an “oxbow” of the river where it passes through Comstock. STS parent company Eagle Creek Renewable Energyhailed the project in a February press release.

“Safety and environmental stewardship are the top priorities for everyone at Morrow Dam,” David Fox, Director of Licensing and Compliance for STS, said in a company press release.

Kyle Alexander, District Supervisor for the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s Kalamazoo District Office Water Resources Division, said Eagle Creek cooperated on plans for more dredging – until this fall, when the company told regulators it was dropping those plans.

“We’d been scheduling biweekly technical calls with Eagle Creek to work through these cleanup projects, and on one of those calls they indicated to us that they would not be moving forward with any additional work at this time,” Alexander said.

He added that the state is eager to clean up the river.

“Unfortunately at this time it just does not appear that we have a responsible party who’s equally willing to put in effort, resources and money that would be necessary to see those projects succeed,” he said.

Alexander said all enforcement options including litigation are on the table as the state presses Eagle Creek to continue the cleanup.

The company declined to comment. Reached by phone, Fox said he was “not authorized” to speak about the Kalamazoo River cleanup. Fox later confirmed that no one else from Eagle Creek would speak about the issue for this story.

Recreational impact

The muck that poured out of Morrow Lake has caused problems for boaters, Alexander said.

“Near Otsego and Plainwell there’s some larger deposits that are impacting kayak launching sites and areas where people put in and take out for portaging on the river,” he explained.

Michigan Department of Natural Resources fisheries biologist Matt Diana said sediment is “really limiting” access to a boat ramp at Mayors’ Riverfront Park in Kalamazoo and is also affecting the main boat ramp at nearby Verburg Park.

“And then launching kayaks at certain road crossings and things like that can be a little hazardous when it’s soft sediment instead of something that’s real easy to stand on,” Diana added.

Environmental damage

The sediment has affected the river’s natural habitats. Among other things it can cover spawning areas for smallmouth bass.

“Smallmouth bass are definitely kind of clean-water type species,” Diana said. “They spawn on clean gravel, clean cobble kind of flats.”

If those areas get covered in silt, “it can affect the quality of their reproductive sites and nesting sites,” leading to “long-term depression” of the population.

“It could affect the fishery in the long run as they don’t have as many young fish to recruit to the adult-stage class that most people are targeting when they’re fishing,” Diana said.

“Then there’s other species like mussels,” he added, that are losing clean bedding areas, and other invertebrates whose gills or habitat could be clogged by the silt.

Diana said sediment naturally gathers in some parts of the river, “but in general it’s uncharacteristic for the Kalamazoo River system to look the way it does now.”

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.
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