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The Great Lakes, which account for 20 percent of the world’s fresh surface water, are steadily getting healthier with an infusion of millions of dollars and decades of work.
About 15 percent of the Great Lakes’ most environmentally degraded areas have been remediated and restored over the past 30 years, according to the EPA.
Twenty-six contaminated water bodies and watersheds, called “areas of concern,” were identified in the Great Lakes region in 1987, and four have been taken off the list so far; but a few areas that were scheduled to be completed this year will need more time.
David Gianturco is chair of the Buffalo River Remedial Advisory Committee. That New York river’s contaminated sediment and poor water quality weren’t the only hurdles to clear.
“Almost everybody that has an (area of concern) had a degraded area, so it’s rare that you have the site to clean up and then it’s done,” Gianturco said.
In addition to cleanup, the Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and local stakeholders also must restore the wildlife habitat along the river.
“As far as these things go, you’re getting the river back to a best possible state,” Gianturco said.
Jen Tewkesbury, who works in Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality, is the coordinator for two areas of concern: the Clinton and Rouge Rivers. Remediation and restoration are not scheduled to be complete for the Rouge River until about 2021, but the Clinton River’s remediation and restoration may be completed in 2018.
According to a September 2016 progress report about the Great Lakes areas of concern, the Clinton River was initially scheduled to be completed in 2017.
The Black River Area of Concern in Ohio was also initially scheduled to be completed in 2017.
“We did the assessment on the project, and effectively blew the budget out of the water,” said Kate Golden, stormwater manager for the city of Lorain, Ohio.
Remediating the Black River was initially estimated to be a three-year, $15 million project, but has now grown to $50 million upon the discovery of coal tar and higher quantities of other contaminants than expected.
“We had to go back to the drawing board, because the $50 million was not something they (EPA Region 5) were able to provide,” she said.
Instead of moving the contaminants to a landfill, Golden said the city is looking at identifying hot spots and intercepting contamination before it affects ecological health.
According to the EPA, federal agencies have invested over $600 million in Great Lakes areas of concern to date, including $90 million in 2016.
The EPA issues a request for applications for Great Lakes Restoration Initiative grants each fiscal year.
Dan Stefanski chairs the River Raisin Public Advisory Council. Sediment remediation work was completed on the Michigan river in 2016 as scheduled, though some impairments are still being addressed.
“The project moved along at a steady pace, and we are very pleased with the progress,” he said.
Michigan has the most areas of concern with 14. Other states with active areas of concern are Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, New York and Wisconsin.
The Detroit River Area of Concern in Michigan is scheduled to be remediated and restored by about 2023, according to Mary Bohling, chair of the Detroit River Public Advisory Council.
Sediment work still remains, as well as work on several habitat restoration projects, but there haven’t been any major delays in the past few years, she said.
Recently, the majority of the work’s funding has come through the EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, which focuses on areas of concern in that region.
“We’d still be waiting for funding had it not been for the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative,” Bohling said.
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