ISHPEMING - Officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency said this week that with levels of mercury contamination in Ishpeming's Deer Lake and its fish down significantly, they hope to change the lake's status as an "area of concern" as early as next summer.
At a press conference in Ishpeming, EPA Region 5 Administrator/Great Lakes National Program Manager Susan Hedman and Ishpeming Mayor Mike Tall announced that the Partridge Creek Diversion Project is successfully diverting the creek from abandoned mine workings beneath the city, where mercury was leaching into water that flowed into Deer Lake.
Deer Lake was listed as one of 43 areas of concern under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada. In the more than 25 years since the water quality agreement, Hedman said only two U.S. areas of concern have been de-listed. The EPA hopes Deer Lake will be the third.
A sign posted along the shore of Deer Lake near Ishpeming lists the fishing restrictions that have been in place for several years. Officials hope to remove the restrictions next year. (Journal file photo)
The city of Ishpeming Department of Public Works Superintendent Jon Kangas shows officials from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and others the channel created for Partridge Creek to avoid flowing through abandoned underground mine workings, which were contaminating the creek with mercury. (Journal photo by Zach Jay)
"If we can make (de-listing) happen, Deer Lake will be the third U.S. area of concern to be de-listed, and the first area of concern on either side of the border to be de-listed on Lake Superior," Hedman said. "Now that is significant progress."
Hedman said such progress would not have been possible without the hard work and cooperation of local officials such as former Mayor Pat Scanlon, Tall and Department of Public Works Superintendent Jon Kangas, all of whom she said were "instrumental in getting funding for this project and seeing it through to completion."
"This work was done in an incredible fashion," she said. "Getting this job done so quickly is really, really commendable."
Hedman also thanked U.S. Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and Carl Levin, D-Southfield, and U.S. Rep. Dan Benishek, R-Crystal falls, for their continued support of the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, and the Deer Lake Public Advisory Committee for decades of improvement efforts.
"We're really proud to be able to play a role in protecting these resources and to helping this community," said Lynelle Marolf, deputy director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality's Office of the Great Lakes.
The Office of the Great Lakes is responsible for the areas of Michigan that have been designated areas of concern.
Marolf said what has consistently impressed her was the dedication of local individuals and governments to addressing the AOCs, even in the past when state and federal funding wasn't there to support their efforts.
"Even when there were essentially no resources available to make those plans a reality, people just didn't give up," she said. "And I think that's just an extraordinary statement about the commitment that people in our AOC communities have to their communities and to the work that needs to get done."
With the inception of the GLRI and federal funding to go with it, Marolf said the situation has really turned around.
In 2010, the EPA, through the GLRI, gave the city $2 million for the first phase of the project. The city provided matching funds of more than $700,000. The first phase involved replacing storm sewer piping beneath much of the city, so the storm system could handle the increased flow of water once Partridge Creek was diverted into it.
The GLRI awarded another $6 million in federal funds, these unmatched, for the second phase of the project, which began in 2012. The second phase involved creating above ground natural channels in places as well as structures to divert the creek's flow into the city's storm sewers.
The second phase of the project is nearly complete, with Kangas saying workers "flipped the switch" to begin the diversion of the creek into the created channels and through the city's storm water system.
The project is not just good news for the health of Deer Lake and its fish, but for Partridge Creek as well.
"It means that Partridge Creek, which used to be a great trout stream, has been restored to provide brook trout habitat once again," Hedman said.
"I remember fishing on Partridge Creek, so this is really a great day for me, because it's reliving my childhood, I think," Tall said.
Following the press conference, officials from the EPA, the city, the DEQ and others went to Washington Avenue where the creek's new channel can be seen as well as continuing construction by Marquette-based Oberstar Inc.
Zach Jay can be reached at 906-486-4401. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org