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Kalamazoo River

Paper Mill on the Kalamazoo River
Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy

Kalamazoo River

This web page is intended to provide residents, local community groups, and other interested parties with information regarding recent and on- going investigations and response activities related to the Kalamazoo River Superfund Site.

The investigation and clean-up work is being undertaken and funded by the former paper mill operators who discharged their waste to the river or placed it in unlined disposal pits adjacent to the river, known as the Potentially Responsible Parties (PRPs). The PRPs for the Site include: Georgia-Pacific, International Paper, Weyerhaeuser and National Cash Register. The USEPA is the lead regulatory agency and is responsible for the Site schedule and has the final decision in the approval and denial of reports, work plans and Site documents, developing and selecting clean-up criteria, and selecting the appropriate clean-up actions to address risk and contamination. EGLE is the support agency and provides assistance to the USEPA during the review of data and documents, concurs on decision documents, and provides assistance to EPA as requested.


Daniel Peabody

Pre-Superfund Site History

Kalamazoo River Eat Safe Fish Guide


Carbonless copy paper manufactured between 1957 and 1971 contained polychlorinated biphenyls  (PCBs) as an ink carrier. Such paper was recycled by paper mills on the Kalamazoo River and  Portage Creek, resulting in the discharge of PCBs. Although PCB use in the manufacture of carbonless copy paper was discontinued in 1971, the waste streams of the Kalamazoo area paper mills most likely contained PCBs for several years after 1971.  The PCB-contaminated wastes from these paper mills were discharged directly to the Kalamazoo River and Portage Creek.  In later years, waste effluents were sent to clarifiers prior to being discharged to the river and creek. The bottom sludge from these clarifiers was placed in at least five disposal areas along the river and creek. The clarifiers were ineffective for stopping the discharge of PCBs because the PCBs were associated  with the suspended fine grained clay particles that did not settle during clarification.

A biological survey completed by the Water Resources Commission (predecessor to the DEQ and now EGLE) in 1971 identified significant levels of PCB-contamination in fish and other aquatic animals in the Kalamazoo River.  A follow-up investigation was completed in 1972 which identified PCB contamination in river water and sediments from Portage Creek to the city of Kalamazoo, and identified the former paper mill operations along Portage Creek as a major source of PCB contamination.  Fish Consumption Advisories were put in-place for multiple species in 1979 and remain in-place today.  From the early 1970’s until 1990, testing and studies of the river, soil, sediments, biota, paper mil properties, and former paper mill disposal areas were completed by various parties to determine the extent of PCB contamination and risks to human health and the environment.  On August 30, 1990 the Kalamazoo River Superfund site was added to the National Priorities List, giving it official designation as a Superfund site.

Historical Papermill Operations

From approximately the mid-1800’s until the 1930’s, paper mills were constructed and operated in the Kalamazoo Region for several reasons, including the constant influx of immigrants into the Kalamazoo-area that provided a sizable work force, the proximity and rail connection to Chicago which provided access to raw materials and the distribution of paper mill products, and the Kalamazoo River provided the large amount of water that is necessary for papermaking and recycling processes and an outlet for waste stream by-products that were generated during those processes. The discharged waste, which contained large amounts of organic matter, decayed in the river which decreased the dissolved oxygen, significantly degraded the water quality and negatively impacting biota.

Kalamazoo River Fish Kill in 1953

Kalamazoo River Superfund Project Area

Kalamazoo River Operable Units Map


The 80 miles of the Kalamazoo River, from the City of Kalamazoo to Lake Michigan, including a 3-mile stretch of Portage Creek were defined as OU5 (Portage Creek and Kalamazoo River in-stream sediments and floodplain soils). Due to the complex nature and very large area the areas being addressed the Site was divided into smaller functional areas, known as Operable Units (OUs). OU5 was subdivided into seven segments (Areas) for cleanup that are defined by the presence of former or current hydroelectric dams. Former waste disposal areas were designated as OU1, OU2, OU3 and OU4, and the former Plainwell Mill property was designated as OU7.