The Kalamazoo River Watershed includes an area of more than two thousand square miles across the Lower Peninsula of Michigan. Flowing 162 miles from its sources south of Jackson through the cities of Albion, Marshall, Battle Creek, Kalamazoo, Otsego, and Allegan, it empties into Lake Michigan near Saugatuck.
On Monday, July 26th, 2010 an Enbridge Energy oil pipeline ruptured spilling up to one million gallons of oil that flowed into the Kalamazoo River just south of Marshall, Michigan. For now, it appears that the oil has been contained upriver of Morrow Dam; however, the oil spill clean up will take many years, cost millions of dollars, and the cumulative effect on human beings, riverine plants, wildlife, and water quality is not yet known.
In addition, the Kalamazoo River, from Morrow Dam near Kalamazoo all the way to the mouth of the river, is a federal Superfund cleanup site as a result of PCB contamination that came from de-inking operations at paper mills in Kalamazoo and Plainwell during the 1940s and 1950s. In February 2002, the EPA took over as the lead agency on the 80 miles of river upstream from its mouth near Saugatuck. Unfortunately, this process has dragged on for too many decades without much meaningful progress or consistent public demand for a clean up.
According to the US EPA’s website, “The [Superfund] site includes five disposal areas, six paper mill properties, the Kalamazoo River, a tributary of Lake Michigan that flows northwest, and Portage Creek, a tributary of the Kalamazoo River that flows north. The project includes three miles of Portage Creek from Cork Street to where it joins with the Kalamazoo River; and from this confluence downstream to the Allegan Dam. Because PCBs have migrated downstream, the Superfund remedial investigation includes the area to the mouth of the Kalamazoo River at Lake Michigan, about 80 miles.”
Additionally, “The Remedial Action Plan process identified eight of the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement’s 14 Beneficial Uses as being impaired. Beneficial use impairments in the [Kalamazoo River] include:
- Restrictions on Fish & Wildlife Consumption
- Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations
- Bird or Animal Deformities or Reproductive Problems
- Degradation of Benthos
- Restrictions on Dredging Activities
- Beach Closings
- Degradation of Aesthetics
- Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat.”
In the past few years, there has been some public discussion in Saugatuck about trying to get the Lower Kalamazoo River de-listed; however, Dayle Harrison—the President of the Kalamazoo River Protection Association—does not see this as a viable option:
“De-listing only follows after cleanup or remediation via a Record of Decision. It is unlikely that the EPA would de-list, unless the data that formed the foundation for the listing on the National Priorities List (NPL) under the Comprehensive, Response, Compensation, Liability Act (CERCLA) were totally incorrect which is not the case on the Kalamazoo River.
“De-listing on the Lower Kalamazoo is likely to be over 100 years away. Only 10 percent, (400,000 cubic yards of the 4 million cubic yards of PCB waste) have been removed from the river in the last 20 years. The reason for the original listing was due to health impacts on eating contaminated fish and reproductive failures in wildlife. Until levels of PCBs in fish and wildlife are reduced to safe levels there will be no change or possibility of de-listing.
Promises by Enbridge, Inc., US EPA and other Federal and State regulatory agencies and politicians to assure a complete cleanup and restoration seem somehow not comforting enough. The Kalamazoo River has a long history of abuse and forgotten promises.
“For example, the ongoing failure of US EPA to hold Georgia Pacific Corp, and Weyerhaeuser, the remaining viable polluters, responsible for the pollution and cleanup of over 4 million cubic yards of Kalamazoo River and Lake Allegan sediments contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyl (PCBs) is unparalleled. PCBs are a class of persistent, cancer-causing, toxic chemicals found in huge amounts of river sediments downstream of the City of Kalamazoo.
“Because of health risks to people and wildlife that eat fish from the Kalamazoo River, it is listed as one of the most contaminated ‘Superfund sites’ in the nation under CERCLA. It’s almost impossible to believe, that, although on the National ‘Priorities List’ list since August of 1990, only 5 percent of the polluted sediments downstream of the City of Kalamazoo have been removed. At the current pace, the cleanup is several hundred years out.”
In addition to the urgent need for a timely and thorough clean up of PCB contamination, Kalamazoo River priorities include the control of non-point source pollution (particularly phosphorus) and habitat restoration. Despite its history of environmental devastation, the Kalamazoo River has the potential—if cleaned up properly—to become a healthy river system once again and a major tourist destination for all of Allegan County.
Click here to view a map of the Superfund site: map of Kalamazoo River project site (PDF)
More details on the status of the Kalamazoo River Clean up can be found here.