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Pollution from 100 years of copper mining in Keweenaw Peninsula in UP is now a crisis

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More than 100 years of copper mining in the Keweenaw Peninsula of the UP has caused a slow-growing catastrophe.

For decades, violent storms and winds have been pushing a 25 million ton pile of mining scrap, known as "stamp sands" into Lake Superior and closer and closer to a crucial fish spawning area.

The mining debris ranges from tiny particles, similar to grains of sand or smaller, to pea and pebble-sized granules.

Esteban Chiriboga is with the Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission. He said a huge amount of stamp sands was dumped near the shoreline. As it migrates into the water, it has been smothering aquatic life, and polluting the water, creating a biological dead zone.

"The water above [the stamp sands] becomes elevated in copper and in many cases the copper concentrations are toxic," Chiriboga said.

The growing crisis went mostly unaddressed, he said, due to the remoteness of the area and the low number of residents — until the stamp sands began to cover parts of the Lake Superior spawning site known as Buffalo Reef.

A task force has been working through different proposals to clean up the stamp sands. A final proposal for a cleanup plan is expected in July. There's so much of the toxic debris, it could cost about a billion dollars to clean up.

Chiriboga said because of that huge price tag, the funding may have to come from many sources, not just from federal programs like the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story spelled Keweenaw incorrectly in the headline.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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