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Cove cleanup: Kalamazoo River park transformed by PCB dredging

Posted on July 12, 2022

There once was a park at Verburg Park.

Technically, the park is not gone — but it’s also not quite there. The land is buried under gravel and heavy machinery. Trail closure signs and fencing keep passersby away from where excavators are busy dredging polluted sediment.

Long-awaited remediation is finally ramping-up in Kalamazoo this summer with the onset of dredging at Verburg Park. Work began in mid-June to remove toxic PCBs from an urban Kalamazoo River cove popular with local fishermen and will continue elsewhere nearby for a couple years.

“In the grand scheme of things, what we’re trying to accomplish is to address some historic contamination in the river,” said Chase Gerbig, senior environmental remediation engineer at Wood PLC, a British firm in charge of the design and engineering on the project.

Georgia-Pacific and International Paper are removing PCBs which have plagued the river since the 1950s, when Kalamazoo paper mills that recycled carbonless copy paper made with the persistent chemicals discharged waste to the river.

Over the years, contaminants settled out in areas of slower water, creating an expansive remedial site stretching all the way to Lake Michigan about 80 miles downstream. The entire stretch is a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Superfund site and fish are under a “Do Not Eat” advisory for all species until the river passes the Calkins Dam.

To date, most of the cleanup has been in several river-adjacent landfills and downstream communities like Plainwell and Otsego. Design and engineering for the dredging the urbanized stretch between Comstock Township and Parchment began in 2017. The most recent removal took place in late 2020, when PCBs were dug from a side channel at the old Crown Vantage landfill on the edge of Parchment.

In Kalamazoo, the work is focused this year on Verburg Park and nearby river hotspots. The park has been transformed into an elaborate sediment processing area with excavators on barges are using GPS-positioning to dig targeted sections and deposit the sloppy material in dump trucks.

The polluted sediment is taken to the park’s south end behind a big grassy berm along Gull Street, where where it’s mixed with Portland cement in a processing area called “The Spa” that features liners and other measures to keep contamination from leaching into the soil. Once drained and hardened, the sediment is sent to the Autumn Hills Landfill near Zeeland.

In the water, turbidity curtains are being used to control sediment migration during dredging. Sand will cover finished areas and banks will be stabilized with rip-rap when complete.

The federally-ordered project was supposed to begin last year, but engineers were thrown a curveball when the Morrow Dam upriver in Comstock Township unexpectedly drained its reservoir in late 2019, flooding the river with an estimated 369,000 cubic yards of additional sediment.

Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, which owns Morrow Dam, is being sued by the state of Michigan over the debacle, which has added millions to the PCB project costs.

About 3,000 cubic tons of sediment has been dug from the cove since dredging began June 16. A substantial amount of that washed in from Eagle Creek’s reservoir discharge.
“About 15 to 20 percent of the material we’re taking out is Morrow sediment,” said Gerbig. “There are spots here with four to five feet of Morrow material we’ve got to take out before we can even do the work we’re here to do.”

The dam, which adjusts the river flow to generate electricity, is also causing substantial water level fluctuations that Gerbig said creates “headaches” for the dredging effort.

“We’ve been trying to reach out to them,” he said. “We’re not getting a lot of daily info.”
Gerbig said plans call for dredging at the Verburg cove to be finished this summer. The work will then move immediately downstream to a stretch north of Paterson Street along the Graphic Packaging International and Kalamazoo Water Reclamation Facility properties.

Dredging at Mayors Riverfront Park will occur after those projects are completed.

Verburg Park will be restored and reopened next year.

“When it’s done, it’ll look just like the Verburg Park that it was before we took this over, and in some ways, will actually be better,” Gerbig said.



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