KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Nearly 35 years after being formed, environmental agencies are finally making some serious progress on the Great Lakes region’s “Areas of Concern” — sites with extensive environmental damage that need restoration.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s goal is to have all of them cleaned up by 2030. As of now, of the 43 Great Lakes sites, only three are expected to fall short of that goal, including one in West Michigan: The Kalamazoo River.

Last week, Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, along with EPA and its Canadian counterparts, celebrated along Muskegon Lake where cleanup efforts are officially finished.

Crews will continue to monitor the site in the coming years, but for now, all active work is complete. Muskegon Lake is the 17th of the 31 American Areas of Concern to reach that mark. Only six have been formally removed from the list.

Much of that work has been completed in just the last decade. For the first 15 years after the Areas of Concern were highlighted, funding was an issue.

“I would say in general, there was very little federal funding for the program other than just staffing,” Rick Hobrla, the Director of the Great Lakes Management Team in EGLE’s Water Resources Division, told News 8. “For on-the-ground action, there was relatively little money available until 2002. There was federal legislation called the Great Lakes Legacy Act. That’s U.S. legislation that specifically set aside funding for remediation of contaminated sediments within the AOCs. Although the law passed in 2002, it wasn’t until 2004 that we actually formally began work.”

The big boost came in 2010 with the introduction of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

“That incorporated the Great Lakes Legacy Act, but it added substantial additional funding to the program,” Hobrla said. “It increased the amount of money that was available for sediment cleanups. It also made funding available for habitat improvement projects. There has been a lot of work that has occurred under the AOC program since that time.”

The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement was first signed by American and Canadian officials in 1972. It has been updated three times: 1978, 1987 and 2012. This 2012 file photo shows Canada’s Minister of the Environment Peter Kent, seated left, and EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson, seated right, at a signing ceremony in Washington. (AP file)


Of all the Great Lakes states, none have more Areas of Concern than Michigan. The EPA identified 14 sites in The Mitten State. Cleanup work has wrapped up on eight of them, but five remain under review.

Six Michigan projects are still in progress. Of the six, four are expected to wrap up before the end of the decade: Torch Lake and the Rouge, Clinton and Detroit Rivers.

That leaves two projects extending beyond 2030: The Saginaw River and the Kalamazoo River.

While the heavy pollution is the primary reason for the long timeline, Hobrla said red tape is also a factor.

“The major reason it’s taking so long is that it is primarily the Superfund program that is dictating the pace of progress there,” Hobrla said. “The Superfund program is a great program, but it’s not a fast-moving one.”

A Superfund site is the informal name of a site claimed under the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act passed in 1980. That allows the EPA to force parties responsible for pollution to either perform the mandated cleanup or cover the costs of one led by the EPA.

The mess along the Kalamazoo River is not only big in scope, but also complicated. The pollution along the river is believed to have come from five different paper mills and three nearby landfills.

The Kalamazoo River also has several dams which are considered contaminated. The cleaning must be done in specific stages, otherwise removing the dams could release more pollutants down stream and cause more contamination.

“The scope of the work that needs to be done (on the Kalamazoo River) is pretty extensive,” Hobrla said. “The Superfund designation and the AOC designation extends from the city of Kalamazoo all the way to Lake Michigan. So, that’s a lot of river miles. That area was the second-heaviest concentration of paper mills at least within the United States, maybe within the world.”

The pollutant at play here? Polychlorinated biphenyls — or PCBs. The human-made chemicals were manufactured for more than 40 years before they were banned in 1979 when they were found to be a carcinogen that also could lead to neurological or hormonal problems.

According to the EPA, since work started in 1998, more than 470,000 cubic yards of contaminated material have been removed and cleaned and 12 miles of the Kalamazoo River and its banks have been restored.

Still, for the Kalamazoo and Saginaw Rivers, the finish lines are nowhere near the line of sight. Hobrla says that points to just how much damage has been done to the sites.

“The areas of concern were identified because they were considered the worst of the worst,” Hobrla told News 8. “The goal of the AOC program is not to completely restore those areas to the point where they are considered pristine. It’s to just raise them up to the level where they are not the worst of the worst, where they’re no worse than many other places.”