Kalamazoo River restoration projects to use $27M in PCB settlements

Garret Ellison | gellison@mlive.com


KALAMAZOO, MI — A suite of ecological restoration projects is being planned along the Kalamazoo River using settlement funding from companies responsible for contaminating an 80-mile stretch with polychlorinated biphenyls. State and federal agencies are seeking public input on 14 proposed projects between Kalamazoo and Lake Michigan that would remove dams, improve riparian areas and rehabilitate wildlife habitat harmed by PCB pollution. The draft plans were announced Monday, April 12. A public comment period runs until May 14 and an online public meeting will be April 29 at 6 p.m. “This is running concurrently with the Superfund remedial efforts but is focused more on trying to restore the ecological function of the system,” said John Riley, an environmental quality analyst with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). About $27 million in total over time is available for the work though a $245 million settlement with NCR Corporation in 2019 and other bankruptcy funds from Millennium Holdings and Plainwell Paper. The initial round of project funding is about $12.4 million. The draft list of draft restoration projects was winnowed from 54 public recommendations solicited last spring. Riley said agencies hope to begin design and construction work on some this year, although some projects are dependent on longer-term funding and feasibility studies. Cheryl Vosburg, Kalamazoo River Watershed Council director, said it would be nice if all projects that were evaluated could be funded, but “this is a good list.” “We’re happy with it,” Vosburg said. • In Kalamazoo Township, the Davis Creek drain would be improved with stream bank restoration to increase wildlife habitat, and culverts under Brookfield and Springfield Avenues would be replaced to help reduce nutrient runoff into the river. • In Kalamazoo, untreated stormwater discharge to Portage Creek along Reed Court would be rerouted into a series of backwater channels and new wetlands to increase floodplain storage and wildlife habitat. New pedestrian trails would be designed to connect with existing area trail networks. • In Parchment, removal of an unused railroad trestle over the river at Commerce Lane would be studied with an eye to stabilizing riverbank erosion by constructing a fishing and river observation platform. • Also in Parchment, the city is proposing creation of a regional plan to develop an urban wildlife corridor extending north from downtown Kalamazoo through Parchment and Cooper Township to D Avenue. • In Plainwell, a leftover spillway at the former Dam No. 1, which was removed amid earlier remedial work in 2009, would be removed and the channel would be restored. • A second Plainwell project would replace the diversion dam, mill race dam and associated infrastructure with a restored channel and rock ramps to allow fish passage but maintain the old raceway that helps make Plainwell an “island city.” • In Plainwell and Otsego, past efforts to relocate freshwater mussels upstream of river cleanup work would be evaluated on a long-term basis with the possible construction of new riffle structures to guide river flow in steeper areas that offer suitable mussel habitat. • In Trowbridge Township, an 11-acre plot next to the Trowbridge Dam that’s been used as a staging area for dam stabilization and removal work would be redeveloped into a public access point with walking paths and platforms for fishing and wildlife watching. • In Allegan, the Southwest Michigan Land Conservancy would get $1 million to acquire and restore a 140-acre parcel of land along the river to use as a nature preserve. • Also in Allegan, design and engineering costs for the planned removal of the city dam downtown would be funded. • In Valley Township, about 27 acres would be acquired along the river just downstream of Calkins Dam and incorporated into the Allegan State Game Area. • Also in Valley Township, the feasibility of reconnecting Koopman Marsh with Swan Creek in the Allegan State Game Area would be studied. • In Manlius Township, about 295 acres along the Kalamazoo and Rabbit Rivers would be acquired, opened to the public under the Outdoor Discovery Center Network management. • In Saugatuck Township, about 1,200 feet of eroding riverbank would be stabilized with habitat improvements and restoration measures at River Bluff Park. The projects have been selected by a group of state and federal agencies known as the Natural Resources Trustees in the court settlement. They are EGLE, Michigan Department of Natural Resources, Michigan Department of Attorney General, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Superfund remedial work on the river is ongoing. Under U.S. Environmental Protection Agency oversight, Georgia-Pacific began a new phase of PCB contaminated sediment dredging in the river last fall. That work is expected to ramp-up over this year near downtown Kalamazoo. Paper mills that were recycling carbonless copy paper released PCBs into the Kalamazoo River and Portage Creek systems from the late 1950s through early 1970s. Starting at Morrow Dam in Comstock Township, 77 miles of the river and a three miles of the creek are listed on the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund roster of the nation’s most contaminated sites. Restoration projects are being planned around the Superfund cleanup. Riley pointed to past ecological restoration efforts on the Tittabawassee River following Dow Chemical dioxin pollution and the restoration on the Lower Fox River in Wisconsin following PCB pollution there as being similar in scope to the Kalamazoo River suite of projects. Riley said its unclear what impact an ongoing sedimentation crisis in the river downstream of Morrow Dam will have on restoration project implementation. Wildlife habitat has been smothered by an estimated 369,000 cubic yards of Morrow Lake sediment after dam owner Eagle Creek Renewable Energy unexpectedly drew down its reservoir in late 2019 and unleased a flood of silt that is still choking much of the river. “We’ll certainly be taking that into account when it comes to implementation of these projects,” said Riley. To comment on the project list, email KalamazooRiver.NRDA@NOAA.gov with “Kzoo SRP Comment” in the subject line, or mail comments to: Lisa Williams, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 2651 Coolidge Road, Suite 101, East Lansing, MI 48823.

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