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Federal regulators say PCB cleanup in Kalamazoo River gaining momentum

People in Kalamazoo won’t have to wait much longer for a federal decision about what to do with an old landfill site that's full of toxic material.

The Allied site is where a paper mill dumped waste for decades. The pile is laced with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs). They can cause cancer and other health effects, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The site is part of a so-called "Superfund" site the EPA has designated for cleanup.

In the spring, EPA officials met with Kalamazoo city leaders and said consolidating and capping the site was the most likely option. The EPA says studies show hazardous waste from the site is not getting into the Kalamazoo River.

The EPA told a crowd at a hotel in downtown Kalamazoo Wednesday night the agency will make its decision public in “the coming weeks.”

Gary Wager is executive director of the Kalamazoo River Cleanup Coalition, a group that’s backing complete removal of the PCBs at the Allied Site. He and others aren’t satisfied with the EPA studies. But he thinks the EPA will probably stick to the cap and consolidate plan for Allied.

“To me there’s a lot of going through the motions, having the meetings to say that they did listen to the public and then they went ahead and did what they already decided to do,” Wager said.

Dayle Harrison lives much farther downstream in the 80-mile Superfund site, where work hasn’t begun yet. He’s president of the Kalamazoo River Protection Association, based in Allegan.

Harrison told the crowd in Kalamazoo he’s sympathetic to their concerns, but he worries too much money and time is being focused on the Allied site.

Funding for cleanup efforts have been a challenge. The paper company responsible for the Allied site is bankrupt.

“We’d all like to have our backyards cleaned up. We’d like to have a complete removal downstream as well,” Harrison said. “But Superfund doesn’t cover restoration, except for maybe some wildlife damages, because that’s not what the law is about. It’s about protecting human health and the environment.”

The effort to clean up this Superfund site began in the 1980s. Actual work, digging up decades' worth of waste from the paper mill industry,  began in 1998. So far work has begun on the first 20 of the 80-mile stretch. No sections are totally complete.

Jim Saric, the EPA’s project manager of the Kalamazoo River Superfund site, says cleanup is gaining momentum.

“This is a complex project and everyone wants things to move faster and I understand that because it’s been going on for a long time,” Saric said.

He says in the last few years projects have moved faster. The agency just wrapped up a portion of Portage Creek in Kalamazoo before schedule and under budget. Their crews dug  as far as 6 feet in some areas to remove all the grey paper waste mixed with sediment in the river bottom.

Saric can’t say how long it’ll take to finish the cleanup. He does expect it to cost roughly a billion dollars.

Lindsey Smith helps lead the station'sAmplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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