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Great Lakes Article:

Dow to cleanse St. Clair River
Company will remove tons of chemicals in sediment

By Gene Schabath / The Detroit News
03/20/2002


   ST. CLAIR SHORES -- Environmentalists hope voluntary dredging by Dow to remove tons of mercury and chemical-laden sediment from the St. Clair River will inspire other companies along the waterway to do the same.
   Beginning May 1, Dow Chemical of Canada will use a hydraulic dredge to suck up sediment that has been on the river bottom for as long as a half-century.
   The sediment is so toxic in some areas that species of fish and clams, normally tolerant of polluted water, died after being left in cages in the sediment during studies in 1996.
   The Dow cleanup is a significant breakthrough for ecologists, such as the Bi-National Public Action Council, which has been trying for nearly two decades to get the river cleaned, said Art Ostaszewski, environmental analyst with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
   "The public is cautiously optimistic that things will finally get cleaned up," he said.
   But some Michigan environmentalists are concerned that sediment residue would be released into the water column during the dredging. That residue could reach drinking water intakes downstream both on the Canadian and Michigan sides of the river, said Doug Martz, chair of the Macomb Water Quality Board.
   The St. Clair River is an international waterway that separates Michigan from Ontario, Canada. Martz said there are 13 municipal drinking water plants on the Michigan side of the St. Clair River and Lake St. Clair. Tests show the water does cross the river onto the U.S. side, he added.
   "We want drinking water plants on the American side notified if there is a failure of the hydraulic dredging system," Martz told members of the Bi-National Action Plan Council, which is made up of Ontario and Michigan residents.
   Severe cases of mercury poisoning can cause brain damage and death to humans. Exposure to chlorine-based chemicals such as hexachlorobenzene can cause liver and kidney problems, arthritis, thyroid tumors and increased risk of cancer to humans.
   Layers of contaminated sediment can be found over a five-mile stretch of the river bottom, environmentalists say.
   The contamination is the tragic legacy from chemical and petroleum companies that have done business for decades in the region of Sarnia, Ontario, known as Chemical Valley. Most of the contaminants, such as hydrocarbons and mercury used in the production of chlorine and other chemicals, were discharged into the river for decades through sewer pipes.
   "Dow admits it is at fault and now we are doing something about it," said Catherine Creber, an environmental expert with the company. "It was contaminants released from the Dow plants in the 1950s and 1960s. Our focus has been to stop the discharges, which we have done. And now we're to remove it."
   The dredging project will cost Dow $10 million. The company is expected to remove 28,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment in an area directly across from Marysville in St. Clair County, about a 90-minute drive from Detroit.
   The dredging area is 3,000 feet long and 120 feet from the river banks.
   Dow said it will use a small, pilot dredging project in the area to make sure the hydraulic dredge system is safe. That system operates like a giant vacuum and leaves little chance for residue to escape into the river.
   During a 1996 dredging by Dow of 180 cubic yards of severely contaminated sediment, residue from the river bottom was stirred and later detected at the Walpole Island water intake 20 miles to the south. In that operation, the sediment was scooped from the river bottom.
   Dow will conduct tests for elevated contaminant levels in the water 300 feet downstream of the dredge site during the cleanup operation.
   Removing mercury and other contaminants from the river bottom also will impact the health of fish that live in the river, said Gary Johnson, project coordinator for Ontario's Ministry of the Environment. Some fish carry advisories for human consumption because they contain high levels of mercury and other contaminants.
   "The levels of mercury in fish are way down compared to the 1960s, and this will result in even lower levels," Johnson said.
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