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EPA updates West Michigan about contamination cleanup on Kalamazoo River

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EPA continues contamination cleanup on Kalamazoo River. (WWMT/Genevieve Grippo)

The Environmental Protection Agency continued the a massive effort to remove potentially dangerous chemicals from the Kalamazoo River and surrounding areas.

The agency said a group of old paper mills released material containing a chemical known as polychlorinated biphenyls, or PCBs, into the river in the 1950s through the 1970s. According to the EPA, the chemical is a probable carcinogen. The agency designated the contaminated area, known as the Allied Paper, Inc./Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River site, as a Superfund site in the 1990s.

“There’s been a lot of work that’s gone on. It’s been a long project, and we all want it to go faster. We’ve made a lot of progress and we continue to make a lot of progress, but there’s still a tremendous amount of work to be done,” Jim Saric, an EPA representative, said.

The Superfund designation allowed the EPA to clean up the contamination and forced the parties responsible to either perform the cleanup or repay the government for EPA-led work. Saric expects the total cost for the project to be about $1 billion, but there is no definite estimate. He said it could take another 15-20 years to complete.

The largest affected area is an 80-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River running from Morrow Dam to Lake Michigan. Others include a three mile stretch of Portage Creek, old paper mill properties, riverbanks and floodplains.

Signs posted along the water have warned the public not to eat fish from the river, as they could be contaminated with PCBs. Saric said even after clean-up is complete, contaminated fish could still live in the river for decades. He said the agency eventually hopes to get to a place where people can eat fish from the river, but said they should still be cautious when doing so.

“We want to take it from that and get it to where you can eat some of the fish,” he said. “I don’t believe we’re ever going to get to the point where it’s going to be unrestricted, you can eat as many as you want, we may never get to that point.”

Since becoming involved, the EPA has stopped landfills from releasing PCBs into the river. It has focused on stopping contaminated river banks from eroding into the river by stabilizing them. Saric said another major objective is keeping contaminated sediments from flowing into Lake Michigan.

A group of locals called the Community Advisory Group (CAG) formed to act as a liaison between the public and the EPA. Pam McQueer, a member of the CAG, said she was scared of the harms of the water when she walked into her first public meeting about the contamination.

Now, she said she’s confident in the agency’s work.

“I have no fear at all now,” she said. “I know behind the scenes what’s going on, and the residents are safer here than they know.”