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Event celebrates milestone in Muskegon Lake cleanup

EGLE Director Liesl Clark at EPA Area of Concern media event in MuskegonWhen the U.S. and Canada amended the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1987, they singled out 43 sites as Areas of Concern (AOC) for environmental restoration around the Great Lakes region. Fourteen of those sites were in Michigan.

The decades since have seen slow-but-steady success stories. Michigan’s AOC program has evolved as a model for large-scale regional ecosystem restoration through community-based planning, contaminated sediment cleanups, and habitat restoration, working with federal and local partners. Three Michigan AOCs – White Lake in Muskegon County, Menominee River in the western Upper Peninsula, and Deer Lake in Marquette County – have been successfully restored and “delisted.” Progress continues at the 11 other sites.

The latest to approach delisting is the Muskegon Lake AOC. Located along Lake Michigan in the Lower Peninsula, it includes the 4,149-acre Muskegon Lake and portions of its tributaries: Ruddiman, Ryerson, Four Mile, Bear, and Green Creeks; branches of the Muskegon River; and Bear Lake. Sediments were contaminated with excessive nutrients, heavy metals, petrochemicals, pesticides, and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCB) from long-ago municipal and industrial sources. Multiple remediation projects over 20 years included wetland creation, sediment removal, culvert replacement, shoreline softening, debris/fill removal, and habitat restoration at 18 sites.

State, federal, and local officials and other stakeholders gathered May 24 at Heritage Landing in Muskegon to celebrate the completion last fall of all management actions required before delisting Muskegon Lake. Management actions are projects that target beneficial use impairments (BUI) at a contaminated site. BUIs are changes in chemical, physical, or biological conditions sufficient to cause significant environmental degradation and limit beneficial uses such as fish and wildlife consumption, beachgoing, and more. Once all impairments are removed at an AOC, it can advance to the delisting process. Muskegon Lake had nine BUIs originally; four remain.

“I hope you all recognize that your hard, smart, and persistent work is transformative,” EGLE Director Liesl Clark told attendees involved in the cleanup. “I know you measure progress through actions completed, impairments removed, and areas delisted. I hope you also take pride in all the ripple effects: the lives you improve, the community pride you restore, the opportunities you create, and the better future you help build.”

AOC remediation typically involves removing or mitigating contaminants from river and lake bottoms, restoring fish and wildlife habitat, monitoring environmental health, and fixing problems created by pollution. Remedial Action Plans (RAP) track the status of environmental problems and BUIs in each AOC.

Work in the Muskegon Lake AOC has repaired shoreline erosion, removed logging-era sawmill debris, restored 134 acres of habitat and over 6,000 feet of shoreline, and removed over 150,000 tons of debris and sediment. All told, the sediment remediation and habitat work cost approximately $70 million. Although cleanup is complete, ongoing environmental evaluations will help the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the State of Michigan ensure the environmental quality of the lake is improving over time. Once the lake meets applicable cleanup criteria, the process for removing the lake from the AOC list can begin.

EGLE coordinates the AOC program in collaboration with local, state, and federal partners. In Muskegon and other AOC communities, diverse stakeholders have come together to address contaminated sediments, loss of fish and wildlife habitat, degraded water quality, beach closings, and many other BUIs.

In addition to cleanup and restoration, long-term ecosystem health for AOC communities also depends on regulatory programs, voluntary grant programs, and continued public involvement.

The Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership made full use of the RAP process, meeting monthly since 1993 and building strong working relationships. Beyond the major milestone of AOC delisting, the partnership will keep meeting monthly to safeguard Muskegon Lake’s natural resources into the future.

Caption: EGLE Director Liesl Clark (in white jacket) at EPA Area of Concern media event in Muskegon.