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Great Lakes Article:

Turning the Kalamazoo from a river choked by pollution to one with clean, clear waters
By James Prichard
Associated Press
03/23/04

ALLEGAN, Michigan - The Kalamazoo River has almost always been a part of W. J. Love's life.

Some stretches are widely considered among Michigan's most scenic waterways. Plants and animals abound and the water runs clear. It's not unusual to see herons, swans, turtles, grouse, pheasant, or even eagles.

But it hasn't always been that way. When the 71-year-old Love was a boy, the river was filthy, turned a whitish-brown color by upstream paper mills in and around Kalamazoo. He didn't dare eat the bass, carp, and salmon that he caught, though he can't attest to the same for some of his childhood fishing buddies.

As for the canoe trips he often took as a young man in the early 1960s, he and his companions had one, simple rule: "We were sure whenever we put in or put out that we didn't put our feet into the water."

The river is much cleaner now, mostly because of stricter federal guidelines for industrial discharges and wastewater treatment enacted in the late 1960s and 1970s. But it is by no means pollution-free.

Health officials have advised against eating fish caught in the river since 1976. Toxic chemicals discharged a half-century ago still contaminate the bed, banks, and floodplains.

The federal government says factories are responsible for tens of thousands of pounds of polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, that contaminate sediment starting from the Morrow Lake Dam near Galesburg, just east of Kalamazoo, to the river mouth at Lake Michigan in Saugatuck.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is developing a cleanup plan, though the problems have been well-documented since the 1950s.

The Kalamazoo River gained national attention when the Oct. 5, 1953, issue of Life magazine ran a photograph of a massive fish kill on a creek that empties into the river where the Allegan Dam forms Lake Allegan. The photo caption read, "Four Acres of Carp Corpses on the Kalamazoo."

Paper companies were blamed for dumping excessive amounts of organic waste into the river. The discharges sapped the stream of oxygen and drove the carp up the tributary, Dumont Creek, where they became trapped and died.

The resulting outcry brought about the earliest efforts to clean the Kalamazoo, although it would not begin in earnest until the mid-1960s.

"The fumes from the river and the dead fish, in some cases, peeled the paint right off the houses there," said John Pahl, the official historian of Allegan and Allegan County.

Love, a retired engineering consultant from Allegan Township, says he was serving a two-year hitch in the Navy in the mid-1950s when a sulfuric acid spill in the river turned his parents' Allegan home from white to yellow.

He also recalls, as a youth, seeing foamy discharges "maybe the size of automobiles" floating downstream and watching polluted plumes empty into Lake Michigan.

"The river, in the past, was just a dumping place," says Lisa Sutterfield, Allegan's city manager.

Within the past two decades, her city of 5,000 has beautified its downtown riverfront by constructing a boardwalk and installing fountains in the river. Not all the longtime residents are impressed.

"The people who have lived here all their lives - those who are 40-ish or 50-ish - and grew up with the river stinking and contaminated, sometimes they still consider it that way," although their perceptions may finally be changing, said Sutterfield, who is 35 and has lived in Allegan for eight years. "But there are people who've only been here the last 15 or 20 years who think it is a real asset to the city."

PCBs pose the biggest threat to wildlife along the river and to people who - against the advice of state government - eat fish taken from the waters downstream from the city of Kalamazoo.

Love simply wants the river cleaned up enough for the state to remove the fish advisories.

"I'd like to see the river come back to being a good stream to fish out of," he said. "I would like to go back and fish the thing again if it were clean."

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