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Allied Paper-Kalamazoo River Superfund cleanup continues -- as does fight over who pays for it

PCB contamination in Kalamazoo River is contained by a silt curtain, to allow a backhoe to remove the sediment without it spreading
PCB contamination in Kalamazoo River is contained by a silt curtain, to allow a backhoe to remove the sediment without it spreading

It's been 33 years since cleanup of one of the Midwest's largest Superfund sites began. And it could be at least another seven before the work at the site, known as Allied Paper-Portage Creek-Kalamazoo River, is finally done.

The PCB contamination came from decades of paper mills operating near the river. PCBs are suspected human carcinogens, as well as having negative effects on the human immune, reproductive, and endocrine systems.

PCBs last for a very long time in the environment, building up in the bodies of fish — that's why the state of Michigan says people should not eat most of the fish from the Kalamazoo River.

Jim Saric, an EPA remedial project manager, said a great deal of the cleanup has been completed, including removal of PCBs from a landfill near the river, but he said there's still work to be done. PCBs flowed into the river for several decades from paper mills, settling in the riverbed near dams and in floodplains.

Saric said seven unique cleanup areas remain. Each area has to be carefully remediated, and any sediments on the riverbed near dams have to be contained with silt curtains. Those are weighted nets that keep the contaminated sediment being removed from flowing into the river.

The cleanup will also require the removal of at least five dams.

"Eighty miles of river is a long section of river," Sarec said. "It is a big project. So it's a slow, systematic, methodical process, and I anticipate the work going into 2030 and possibly beyond."

Saric says total estimates for the cleanup costs could end up being in the range of $800 million to a billion dollars.

As the cleanup continues, so does a legal battle over who foots part of the bill. Paper product manufacturer Georgia-Pacific sued three other parties deemed responsible for the contamination — NCR, International Paper, and Weyerhaeuser — to try to recover its costs for remediation of the Kalamazoo River.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled last year that Georgia-Pacific's claim was barred by a statute of limitations.

Georgia-Pacific is appealing the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court.

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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