For decades, paper mills dumped waste into the Kalamazoo River. The waste contains polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs.
People can be exposed to PCBs by eating fish from the river. The chemicals can cause cancer, and other health effects.
The biggest concentration of the waste is a 1.5-million-cubic-yard pile in a residential area in Kalamazoo, nicknamed Mount PCB.
Now, the Environmental Protection Agency says it will release a feasibility study of the options for the pile by September. For a little perspective, this study was supposed to come out as far back as April 2011.
There’s a big effort to push the EPA to remove the pile completely, and send it to a landfill in Wayne County that can handle this waste properly. The holdup on a decision seems to be the price tag. The landfill quoted $120 million but the EPA thinks it’ll cost three times as much.
The pile is just one in an 80-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River where regulators are cleaning up PCB contamination.
Recently I met up with Paul Ruesch, an on-scene coordinator with the EPA, to check on the progress at a different site in Kalamazoo.
“This is the section that we’re working on right now. This is called SA5A. It goes from Dutton Street to Walnut Street,” he says.
Ruesch is in the middle of a project to dredge sections of Portage Creek that run into the Kalamazoo River. Huge pumps divert the creek into pipes that loop the water around the section they’re dredging. That way, the section they’re dredging is dried out.
“This stuff costs a lot of money. It costs me $3,000 a day just in fuel to keep all these pumps running,” says Ruesch.
This process is more expensive than regular wet dredging. But this way, the PCBs they’re digging up here won’t end up downstream where PCBs have already been cleaned up.
It’s not just PCBs they’re cleaning up, either. Bill Rose is the President and CEO of the Kalamazoo Nature Center.
“We had huge concrete, you know railroad ties, telephone poles, junk, garbage; this just used to be used as a dumping site,” says Rose.
Now that the PCBs are getting cleaned up, Rose says the Nature Center will transform these four acres into an urban nature park.
“If you can picture a beautiful wetland, a pretty bridge right here where you can sit on a bench, watch the stream. And as Paul said earlier, the stream most of the time runs clear and clean -- it’s actually a beautiful stream,” he says.
Once complete, the park will be within walking distance from some low-income neighborhoods that don’t have access to parks like this.
This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources.