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Cleanup of abandoned mining waste in the Keweenaw Peninsula making great progress

EGLE’s Abandoned Mine Waste project focuses on mining-era wastes historically discarded in or near Torch Lake in the Keweenaw Peninsula.
Cleanup of abandoned mining waste in the Keweenaw Peninsula is making great progress.
Cleanup of abandoned mining waste in the Keweenaw Peninsula is making great progress.(Michigan EGLE)
Published: Oct. 20, 2020 at 3:08 PM EDT
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HOUGHTON COUNTY, Mich. (WLUC) - Mining has been a big part of the Keweenaw Peninsula’s history.

For over 100 years, mining companies in that part of the Upper Peninsula (U.P.) flourished. For much of that time, before many modern environmental laws were enacted, waste was disposed of in and around Torch Lake. The problems left behind when mining and ore processing ceased were immense — for example, it’s estimated that at least 20 percent of the lake’s volume was filled with tailings and other waste products.

In the 1980s the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency designated the area as a Superfund site and a Great Lakes Area of Concern by the US/Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. The EPA Superfund Branch undertook activities to address stampsand (the most prolific waste associated with copper mining in the Keweenaw), but left polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), asbestos and other wastes unaddressed.

Since 2013, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has continuously worked to mitigate public health and environmental risks not addressed by the EPA Superfund Remedial Branch. EGLE’s “Abandoned Mine Waste” (AMW) project focuses on mining-era wastes historically discarded in or near Torch Lake in the Keweenaw Peninsula that include:

  • Significant in-lake and/or terrestrial sources of contamination, particularly PCBs.
  • Uncharacterized waste deposits, including an estimated 750 drums located on the lake bottom.
  • Bulk disposal areas, including dumps, debris piles and landfills; and,
  • Industrial ruins, including former coal storage areas, underground storage tanks, asbestos-containing building materials, and other waste materials.

A complex, geographically extensive, and important project like this requires a lot of resources. Amy Keranen, EGLE’s AMW project manager, has formed a project team consisting of the EGLE Remediation and Redevelopment Division (RRD), EPA Emergency Response Branch (ERB), and RRD’s consultant, the Mannik & Smith Group. The team uses funding provided by the State of Michigan and the US EPA.

Every year the project advances, says Amy Keranen. “The team has completed extensive multi-year waste removal actions at eight locations along Torch Lake in the past 13 years,” she said. “U.P. RRD has also completed numerous emergency drum, asbestos, waste and mercury removals during that timeframe.”

Since the project began, community outreach has been key, Keranen added. “The narrow scope of the 30+ year-old Superfund site was largely unknown to the community. The AMW project has consistently communicated with the public via annual informal newsletters that are emailed to nearly 200 recipients and are also distributed via hard copy at local businesses and other public locations.” The AMW project team also hosts an annual drop-in style open house where attendees can discuss the project one-on-one."

In reflecting on EGLE’s work, Keranen says she’s most proud of the partnership formed among RRD, EPA ERB and the consulting firm; the effective way that information has been shared with the community, and successfully working with public and private stakeholders to address some 10 miles of shoreline and remove tens of thousands of tons of wastes from dozens of properties not dealt with at the Superfund site.

“I live and work in this community,” she said. “I have raised my family here and my oldest kids are starting to do the same. My goal for the AMW project was to make sure that future generations wouldn’t have to worry about encountering mining wastes as they explore the great Keweenaw peninsula. With the work we’ve accomplished to-date, I am quite satisfied that we are meeting that goal as the project progresses.”

So far, the AMW project has completed the on-land removal actions from Lake Linden to Ripley, Michigan. In partnership with EPA ERB, EGLE anticipates dealing with issues in the Ripley area in 2021-2022.

All project documents are posted on the Abandoned Mining Wastes project website as they are finalized. Questions about the project or historic waste issues should be directed to Amy Keranen at KeranenA@Michigan.gov.

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