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EPA studying herbicide in watershed (Atrazine)

Lake Michigan harbors contaminants from farms, cities

South Bend Tribune

SOUTH BEND -- The St. Joseph River weaves through five counties in southwest Michigan and northern Indiana while it drains a 3,662-square-mile watershed area.

As it makes its way on a 210-mile journey to Lake Michigan, the river picks up man-made contaminants from both agricultural and urban sources.

The primary farm pesticide that drains into the river is atrazine, a commonly used herbicide that is now used on more than 70 percent of U.S. farms since its introduction in the late 1960s. About 60 million pounds a year are applied on primarily acres planted to corn.

Lake Michigan's waters now contain about 410,000 pounds of atrazine, according to Russell Kreis Jr., a branch chief with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. He spoke Monday afternoon during a conference on the St. Joseph River Watershed.

The St. Joseph River and its tributaries carry the more atrazine into Lake Michigan than any other river system in Indiana, Michigan or Wisconsin, according to data taken from a recent Lake Michigan Mass Balance Study.

"Atrazine levels will increase in Lake Michigan over time," Kreis said.

While the EPA does not link atrazine to cancer, there is some evidence to support a belief that atrazine can cause neurological damage, especially in parts of the brain called the hypothalamus and pituitary gland.

Atrazine levels in the St. Joe fluctuate, with the highest levels occurring after heavy springtime rains.

Lake Michigan's tributaries continuously feed atrazine into the lake's waters. But when the herbicide is mixed with the lake's waters, the concentration levels fall well below the EPA's tolerance thresholds for humans as well as lake organisms, Kreis said.

"At the present time, (atrazine) is being evaluated by the EPA," he said.

Cities along the river and its tributaries do not discharge atrazine, but they do send millions of gallons of sewage water that contains E. coli bacteria whenever rainfall exceeds the ability of city municipal waste water treatment plants to handle the waste.

The city of Goshen is embarking this summer on a 20-year program to greatly reduce or eliminate its discharge of sewage into the Elkhart River, a major tributary of the St. Joe.

The effort will cost about $40 million over that time, said Brandon Koltz, a project engineer with Triad Engineering Inc., which is redesigning the city's sewer system.

Between 25 and 30 times a year, heavy rains overtax the city's combined sewer system, which dumps waste water directly into the Elkhart River through six large outflow pipes.

Of greatest concern to city residents is the outflow located at Shanklin Park, a popular gathering place for families and children.

The first project to separate the city's discharge at the park begins this summer with the reconstruction of Third Street near downtown Goshen. A new storm sewer system costing between $4.5 million and $5 million is part of that project, Koltz said.

By re-routing the sewer system away from Shanklin Park, the city expects to nearly eliminate its discharge into the river. The new sewer system would pipe waste water to a large concrete control structure at Wilkinson Street and First Street.

"Most of (the benefits) will be felt between that stretch of the Elkhart River between Goshen and Elkhart," Koltz said.

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