Monday, May 11, 2015

MDEQ to hold Open House on Torch Lake Abandoned Mining Wastes project May 13

By Michele Bourdieu

This partially sunken dredge is a reminder of the copper reclamation industry that left stamp sand and PCB pollution in the Torch Lake Area of Concern. (2012 Photo © Todd Marsee and courtesy Michigan Sea Grant Research Project)

LAKE LINDEN -- The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and a team of Michigan Tech University researchers have been working to locate and study environmental hazards left by 100 years of copper mining industries in the Torch Lake Area of Concern so they can be cleaned up where possible. Contaminants that cause an immediate threat to human health, such as PCBs (Polychlorinated Biphenyls) and mercury in fish tissues, are an important subject of two recent projects.

MDEQ Emergency Response and Removal: Abandoned Mining Wastes project

On Wednesday, May 13, Amy Keranen, Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) Remediation and Redevelopment Division project manager for the Abandoned Mining Wastes (including PCBs) project at Torch Lake, will host an Open House, free and open to the public, from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Lake Linden-Hubbell High School Auditorium. Staff from WESTON Solutions of Michigan will also be on hand to speak with the public and answer questions.

Last summer, the MDEQ began an investigation to identify and characterize mining wastes remaining along the shores of Torch Lake near Lake Linden-Hubbell. The MDEQ sampling crew who conducted on-land and in-lake investigative activities will display some of their equipment, pictures, maps and videos of their findings. The informal Open House will offer citizens the opportunity to drop in to meet the project team and to get their questions answered.

Keranen notes this work is separate from the projects conducted by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) under the Superfund program, which involved capping the exposed stamp sands/tailings and was to require property/resource use restrictions to prevent certain activities in select areas.* Keranen's present project has included evaluating the industrial processes that generated the wastes and various hazardous substances that remain in the area.

Powder-like stamp sands spread through Torch Lake after the original stamp sand was put through a regrinding process to remove more copper and then dumped back into the lake. Electrification used for this process led to the present pollution from PCBs. (See video clips below.) (2012 Photo © Todd Marsee and courtesy Michigan Sea Grant Research Project)

"This work is needed to address two concerns remaining after the completion of the EPA’s Superfund project," Keranen says. "The continued presence of PCBs in Torch Lake is preventing the recovery of the Torch Lake ecosystem and keeps it from being delisted as an Area of Concern under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. In addition, other potential environmental and human health risks are present which require further evaluation and possible clean-up."

PCBs have been found in the basement of the Calumet and Hecla (C and H) Powerhouse, near the Calumet Stamp Mill site, C and H Smelter, and the coal dock area in Hubbell. PCBs are also in the water, fish and sediment of Torch Lake.

In addition to the presence of organic and inorganic contamination, found through the MDEQ's investigation of the C and H Lake Linden Operations Area, physical hazards such as metal and porcelain-like debris can be seen here at the Hubbell Beach near the old town dump. These wastes can be seen in the shallow water near the swimming area. (Photo courtesy Amy Keranen)

"In the Hubbell Processing Area, PCB contamination is present in debris, charred waste materials, waste piles, soil, and groundwater," Keranen reports. "These materials are subject to migration to Torch Lake via erosion channels on the ground surface that lead to holes in the former coal dock bulkhead. PCBs were also detected in groundwater suggesting the potential for movement of PCBs through the groundwater to the lake. Offshore sediment sampling confirmed that PCBs are present in Torch Lake sediment in front of the former smelter and coal dock."

This map shows Torch Lake and several sites of abandoned mine waste in the Lake Linden and Hubbell areas. (Map courtesy Weston Solutions of Michigan, Inc.)

Keranen adds the investigation is moving down the shoreline to include the C and H Tamarack City Operations Area. Her team has completed historic archival research, compiled and evaluated the previous studies and reports for the Tamarack City area, and conducted underwater mapping (via side-scan sonar) to develop a soil sampling plan beginning this week.

"Studies in the lake will start in late May," Keranen says. "The work will continue in a phased manner, allowing us time to look at preliminary data and get back out to fill in any data gaps later in the summer."

Carol MacLennan, Michigan Tech professor in Social Sciences, has worked with MDEQ on the Abandoned Mining Wastes Project, Keranen said.

"She conducted historic research regarding the industries in the Lake Linden-Hubbell, the Tamarack City and the Mason areas," Keranen noted. "We used Carol's research to confirm where our samples should be -- targeting areas of waste streams and disposal areas."

On September 25, 2014, MacLennan gave a presentation on "Creating the Torch Lake Industrial District and Its Environment" for the Fourth Thursday in History Series, sponsored by Keweenaw National Historical Park.

1947 photo of the Torch Lake Industrial District. (Photo courtesy Michigan Tech Archives and Carol MacLennan)

Using historic photos, MacLennan pointed out how the Torch Lake shoreline between Lake Linden and Mason was once the largest industrial site in the Keweenaw copper district. An enormous powerhouse, eight stamp mills, a smelter, and three reclamation plants lined the Torch Lake shoreline, and the lake bustled with ships delivering coal and taking copper to market. She demonstrated how processing mined rock, reclaiming copper-rich stamp sands from the lake and from scrap metals, and experimenting with new copper oxide products consumed the attention of the Calumet and Hecla and Quincy mining companies in their later years.

Historic photo of Calumet and Hecla stamp mills in Lake Linden. (Photo courtesy Michigan Tech University)

"History is a critical tool for figuring out mine waste pollution," MacLennan said. "Without our investigation into Torch Lake, we would not be able to untangle the PCB problem there."

MacLennan's research has helped to identify sites of hazardous mining waste, including PCBs. Here are some video clips from her presentation:

Carol MacLennan, Michigan Tech University professor of anthropology, speaks about her historical research for the Michigan Sea Grant Torch Lake Integrated Assessment project on Sept. 25, 2014, at Lake Linden-Hubbell High School. The presentation was hosted by Keweenaw National Historical Park. (Videos by Keweenaw Now)

Here Carol MacLennan shows photos of some of the buildings and equipment used in reclamation of copper from the stamp sands as well as the facilities for regrinding, leaching and refining it -- processes that left pollutants in the environment.

Carol MacLennan speaks here about the electrification that led to PCB contamination in and around Torch Lake.

This chart from Carol MacLennan's presentation shows the waste products and contaminants left from several industrial facilities near Torch Lake.**

Potential health hazards from exposure to PCBs include cancer, neurological disorders, skin lesions and liver problems. Additionally, PCBs can be passed from mothers to children during pregnancy and
through breast feeding. Children are more vulnerable to the effects of PCBs than adults.**

During the question-answer period following her presentation, Mac Lennan pointed out that the Torch Lake Area of Concern is larger than just Torch Lake.***

"We still have a long way to go with delisting it as an Area of Concern," she said.

MacLennan has also done historical research on the Torch Lake Area of Concern through the Michigan Sea Grant project titled Torch Lake Integrated Assessment. On this project she worked with two other Michigan Tech professors and student researchers, again helping identify the sources of contaminants through her study of industrial sites in the area.

Michigan Sea Grant Project: Torch Lake Integrated Assessment

In 2012 MacLennan, along with Noel Urban and Judith Perlinger, Michigan Tech professors in Civil and Environmental Engineering, received funding from the Michigan Sea Grant (federal funding through the State of Michigan) to study the environmental and historical effects of the intensive copper mining that took place on the Keweenaw Peninsula from 1845 to 1968. Their project is titled the Torch Lake Integrated Assessment.

Michigan Tech professors leading the Torch Lake Integrated Assessment -- Noel Urban (foreground), Judith Perlinger (right) and Carol MacLennan (third from right) -- are pictured here opposite the Quincy Smelter, along with student research assistants Emma Schwaiger (far left) and Ankita Mandelia. (2012 Photo © Todd Marsee and courtesy Michigan Sea Grant Research Project)

"The purpose of this project is to assemble all the existing information regarding problems in Torch Lake," Urban explains. "The most important part was the information on PCBs. As a result of our findings we convinced the DEQ, the EPA and the PAC (Torch Lake Public Advisory Council) that there is ongoing contamination from PCBs."

Urban and Perlinger found data indicating that concentrations of PCBs in Torch Lake sediments, water and fish were much higher than those in nearby waterways. The highest concentrations -- hot spots -- are near the western shore of Torch Lake, where industrial activity was intense.

While swimming and boating in Torch Lake are considered safe, humans can be exposed to harmful effects of PCBs from eating fish with high levels of PCBs in their fatty tissues and from contact with contaminated soils. The local municipal drinking water, which comes from groundwater wells, is not contaminated with PCBs.

On July 4, 2014, Professor Noel Urban took groups of visitors on a boat ride aboard Michigan Tech's research vessel, the Agassiz, and explained various aspects of the pollution in the sediments and the fish of Torch Lake. Passengers were invited to ask questions during the sessions. Here are some video clips from one of his presentations:

On Michigan Tech's research vessel Agassiz, Noel Urban, Michigan Tech professor of environmental engineering, speaks about the stamp sands in Torch Lake during a community education event in Lake Linden, Mich., on July 4, 2014. (Videos by Keweenaw Now)

Urban estimates it will take 800 years for the sediments at the bottom of Torch Lake to recover naturally:

Michigan Tech Professor Noel Urban explains why nothing can grow on the bottom of Torch Lake, where sediments are still contaminated with stamp sand from industrial reclamation of copper in the area. He is speaking on July 4, 2014, during an educational boat ride on Michigan Tech's Agassiz research boat.

Aboard the Agassiz research boat on July 4, 2014, Michigan Tech Professor Noel Urban explains how electrical transformers contained PCBs that contaminated the soil and how fish in Torch Lake are contaminated with both PCBs and mercury. He points out that Amy Keranen of MDEQ is working to locate the PCBs so they can be cleaned up.

Michigan Tech Professor Noel Urban answers questions about contamination of Torch Lake from copper mining and reclamation. Here he discusses contaminants in the sediment and the fish. Agassiz Captain Steve Roblee asks about the safety of well water. 

As Noel Urban noted in his presentation, fish consumption advisories prohibit eating certain fish from Torch Lake because of mercury and PCBs that bioaccumulate in fish tissues.

The Michigan Department of Community Health (now known as the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) is working on the problem of Torch Lake's contaminated fish and has issued fish consumption advisories for Walley, Northern Pike and Smallmouth Bass. Michigan's Health Department toxicologists are also working on evaluations of risk from toxic contaminants around Torch Lake.**** 

Notes:

* The EPA has defined the Superfund Site as the upper six inches of stamp sand and slag in certain areas of Houghton County and any soil cap and vegetative cover applied to these areas. It has also included a "no-action" remedy for lake sediments. The Superfund program continues to monitor this remedy.

** Click here to learn more about the PCBs in and around Torch Lake and potential health hazards they pose to humans. Click here for more details on toxic metals in and around Torch Lake. Learn which government agencies and community groups are working on Torch Lake issues in the Michigan Sea Grant publication, "Who Is Doing What at Torch Lake?"

*** Click here for a map of the Torch Lake Area of Concern.

**** Click here to see fish consumption advisories for your area of Michigan.  Click here for Michigan Health Department reports on the Torch Lake Superfund site and surrounding areas.

Editor's Note: This is the fourth in a series of articles including Michigan Tech's Research Vessel Agassiz used for community education programs during 2014. See also our July 22, 2014, article, "Adults and kids learn about Great Lakes research, fish food web, marine robotics, more ..."; our Aug. 4, 2014, article, "Photos: Copper Harbor celebrates Lake Superior Day 2014 with R/V Agassiz excursions, ROVs, canoe races, picnic, more .."; and our Nov. 17, 2014, article, "Geology expert notes concerns about arsenic in Gay stamp sands as DEQ accepts comments on stamp sand removal proposal."

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