A proposed U.S. Army Corps of Engineers navigational dredging project in the Upper Saginaw River has advocates in the area asking tough questions about the best way to deal with the river’s toxic legacy. The proposal is to dredge 3.1 million cubic yards of sediment contaminated with mercury, dioxins, and other chemicals, and dispose of the sediments in a facility located in the floodplain and adjacent to a State Game Area. Few would argue against the importance of getting these toxins out of the river, or the economic benefits from shipping traffic in the area. But several organizations, such as the Lone Tree Council and Citizens Against Toxic Substances (CATS), as well as the Michigan DNR and U.S. EPA have expressed concerns with the project. Chief among the concerns is the lack of an Environmental Impact Statement regarding the site chosen for the Dredged Material Disposal Facility (DMDF).
Scarred Legacy, Committed Community
The Saginaw River watershed – a butterfly shaped area covering 8,600 square miles – is the largest in the state, encompassing twenty-two counties in part or whole. The Saginaw River itself is a turbid, 22-mile long waterway, plagued by sedimentation from four major tributaries: the Cass, Flint, Shiawassee, and Tittabawassee, and waters fouled by years of industrial use. But nobody has given up on the river or its bay. Efforts to address the industrial pollution, particularly a $28 million Natural Resources Damage suit settled by General Motors and other polluters, recently saw PCB hot spots removed, and renewed community efforts to address other impaired uses of the water. Unfortunately, recent sampling has uncovered high levels of dioxin in the river sediment, an awakening to the toxic legacy of a chemical company.
Flawed Process, Unacceptable Disposal Site
Because an existing Confined Disposal Facility has been declared full, there has been a push to find a new dredged spoils site. Championed by the Saginaw County Public Works Commissioner, and supported by shipping interests organized as the Upper Saginaw River Alliance, the search narrowed a list of 30 potential sites to three: an existing General Motors facility, a site some distance away from the river in Buena Vista Township, and 537-acres of farm fields in the floodplain of the river and adjacent to the Crow Island State Game Area.
It became clear from the onset of public meetings that there would be an aggressive push for the farm fields. An Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) should have been mandatory given the proximity to the river, the adjacent State Game Area, and opposition of nearby homeowners and the trustees of the host township of Zilwaukee. Interestingly, in a 1993 Preliminary Letter Report (essentially a prequel to an EIS) the Corps ruled out sites west of the Saginaw River (where the farm fields are located) because of poor clay soils and a high water table. Perhaps recognizing that an EIS for the site would likely find it unsuitable, the Corps has to date only conducted a short Environmental Assessment.
A proposal of this magnitude requires the input of the public at many levels, and it will be important for concerned citizens to make their voices heard along the way. The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) has issued a draft Section 401 Water Quality Certification for the proposed Dredge Material Disposal Facility and accepted public comments on the draft until March 7, 2005.MDEQ also held a public meeting to discuss the project on March 1st. If you are interested in learning more about this project, and how you can most effectively participate, please contact Terry Miller of the Lone Tree Council: (989) 686-6386.