Slow progress cleaning up Great Lakes
Polluted lake an example of slow results under accord on water quality.
By John Flesher
Published in the South Bend Tribune December 27, 2006
Last in a four-part series
LAKE LINDEN, Mich. -- David Jukuri halts his SUV on an unpaved road in the middle of a sprawling meadow, barren except for acres of grasses and the occasional scrubby bush.
"This used to be a lake," says Jukuri, chairman of the Torch Lake Public Advisory Council. "Almost hard to believe, eh?"
Torch Lake still exists, but now the water's edge is a good quarter-mile away. During the copper mining heyday in Michigan's Keweenaw Peninsula a century and more ago, 200 million tons of crushed waste rock and smelter slag were dumped thoughtlessly into the lake, shrinking it by 20 percent.
Once separate but now linked to Lake Superior by a narrow canal, Torch Lake was placed on the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement list of the region's 43 most contaminated sites two decades ago. The pact between the United States and Canada to protect and restore the lakes originally was signed in 1972.
But an important milestone was reached this year, when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced it had finished cleanup work under the federal Superfund program. And officials hope in 2007 to meet one of three conditions for scratching Torch Lake from the water-quality agreement's toxic "areas of concern" lineup by certifying that its fish no longer have tumors.
"It will never be as God put it there," says Dan Lorenzetti, like Jukuri a businessman in nearby Houghton. Both are longtime members of the advisory council, which gives area residents a seat at the cleanup planning table with officials from the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
"But it's just amazing how things have changed," Lorenzetti adds. "I've seen a lot of healing in the last 40 years here."
Only three of the 43 areas of concern have been removed from the list since it was compiled in the late 1980s. That is sometimes described as one of the water-quality agreement's failures. A strategy for reinvigorating the agreement just released by environmentalist groups says cleanup of the toxic hot spots has been "painfully slow."
Yet hopeful signs are emerging.
Congress in 2002 authorized for the first time a dedicated source of federal funding to clean bottomlands in the contaminated areas -- $270 million over five years. The sums actually appropriated have been lower. But several projects have gotten under way or been completed.
In Michigan, which has 14 of the 31 toxic sites on the U.S. side, the Department of Environmental Quality released guidelines this year to help move along the sites' cleanup and restoration.
Sites were listed because their toxicity was serious enough to cause problems called "beneficial use impairments." For them to be removed, officials must certify the impairments have been fixed.
Houghton County's Torch Lake was found to have three: fish tumors or other deformities; fish contamination sufficient to trigger consumption warnings; and degraded populations of tiny invertebrates -- mussels, insects -- that are crucial links in the aquatic food chain.
Scientists don't know what caused the tumors spotted years ago on walleye and its smaller cousin, the sauger, said Sharon Baker, a DEQ biologist working on the Torch Lake case. But there's no shortage of candidates.
The stamp sands -- fine-ground waste rock -- poured into the lake and along its shores were laced with heavy metals. In the early 1900s, tons of stamp sands were removed, reprocessed to wring out more copper, then dumped once more. This time they contained residue of pine oils, creosotes and other pollutants.
Barrels of toxic waste were placed along the lake, some in the water. Elevated levels of PCBs, origin unknown, were found in one section during testing a couple of years ago.
After the lake and neighboring sites were placed on the EPA's Superfund list, waste barrels and other debris were removed. The agency decided the best way to cleanse the lake and its sediments was to prevent further erosion of stamp sands along the shore.
Beginning in 1999, crews cleared and graded sands on hundreds of acres and covered them with 6 inches of clean soil. Vegetation was planted for stability.
In the village of Lake Linden at the lake's tip, a campground and nature trail now occupy 210 acres of rehabilitated ground. An 18-hole golf course is planned, and housing developments may eventually follow.
The EPA last August announced the Superfund cleanup was done. All that's left is monitoring the lake and waiting for water quality to improve. The disappearance of the sauger, which prefers dark, murky waters, suggests the lake is getting clearer.
Walleye, which the state Department of Natural Resources plants in the lake, are flourishing. During a professional fishing tournament this year, some of the biggest trophy walleye were taken from Torch Lake, Baker said.
Officials hope to declare the fish tumor problem solved by next spring. The lake's small animal population is recovering but not yet a candidate for removal from the impairment list -- largely because of the abnormally high PCB levels.
The DEQ and other agencies will map a strategy this spring for determining the source of the PCBs -- and whether anything can be done about them except wait for the waters to slowly cleanse themselves.
Mercury is causing Torch Lake's third big issue under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement: fish consumption advisories. But airborne mercury is so pervasive that all Michigan's inland lakes are covered by an advisory that women of childbearing age and children under 15 limit eating of some larger fish, including walleye.
Lorenzetti, 60, a local native who runs a concrete block plant, says there's no use blaming the copper mines for despoiling Torch Lake. They did so in ignorance of the ecological harm, he says.
But its presence on the Superfund and water-quality agreement lists stains the Keweenaw area's reputation and hurts economic development, which has lagged since the last mines closed 40 years ago, he says.
"We need to dispel these connotations that this is a Love Canal," he says. "The Keweenaw Peninsula is far from that. It's one of the most beautiful places to live in Michigan."