Decades of cleanup work paying off for White Lake

Project Summary: Intensive cleanup activities have improved water quality, fish health and reduced phosphorus concentrations in White Lake, which is one of 43 Great Lakes Areas of Concern. White Lake could be removed from the AOC list by the summer of 2014.

Project name: White Lake Area of Concern cleanup and delisting

Location: Whitehall, Michigan.

The toxic sediment in the White Lake AOC is mixed with corn cob dust to make it solid enough to transport safely. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Office of the Great Lakes.

The toxic sediment in the White Lake AOC is mixed with corn cob dust to make it solid enough to transport safely. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Office of the Great Lakes.

Description: White Lake was designated a Great Lakes Area of Concern in 1987 after contaminated groundwater beneath the former Hooker Chemical manufacturing facility seeped into the lake, polluting the water, contaminating the mud and sand at the bottom of the lake, and tainting fish and wildlife.  A tannery on the other side of White Lake caused a variety of problems in the lake, including: polluted drinking water; contaminated fish; explosive algal growth; degraded fish an wildlife populations; loss of fish and wildlife habitat; and damaged bottom-dwelling organisms at the base of the lake’s food chain. This pollution crisis harmed the lake and gave the otherwise scenic waterway a bad reputation.

Cleanup efforts over the past decade have removed tons of contaminated sediments from the lake bottom, halted the flow of polluted groundwater into the lake and reduced the amount of phosphorus entering the lakes. In May 2012, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency announced that White Lake no longer suffered from excessive algal growth. By February 2013, restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption had been lifted. The remaining impairments to the waterway are on schedule to be addressed by the summer of 2014, at which point the AOC designation would finally be removed.

Approximate cost of project: More than $20 million in public and private funds has been spent on removing contaminated sediments at two sites in the lake. The EPA’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provided another $2.1 million in 2011 to create fish and wildlife habitat by restoring natural features along a portion of the lake’s shoreline.  The total cost of the project is hard to estimate because numerous projects have made indirect but critical contributions to the health of White Lake. For example, the Lake Street green infrastructure project in Whitehall has contributed to the health of the White Lake AOC, but it is its own, large-scale project.

A Great Blue Heron perches on a log in the distance, benefiting from the habitat restoration that was provided by Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Office of the Great Lakes

A great blue heron, perched on a log in the distance, enjoys the habitat restoration in White Lake. Funding for this shoreline cleanup was provided by Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. Photo courtesy of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, Office of the Great Lakes

Resource challenges addressed: Contaminated sediments that harmed water quality, restrictions on fish consumption, excessive phosphorus loadings that caused nuisance algal growth, aesthetic degradation due to debris and trash along the shore.

Key partners (public and private): 

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, City of Whitehall, City of Montague, White Lake Public Advisory Council, Grand Valley State University, Muskegon Conservation District, and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory.

Types of jobs created: Biologists, chemists, toxicologists, ecologists, excavators, truck drivers, heavy equipment operators and general laborers.

Results and accomplishments: Two cleanup projects removed a total of 97,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediments, which improved water quality, improved fish and wildlife populations and bolstered a resurgent tourism industry centered largely on the lake. Large stones known as riprap were removed from the banks of the lake and were replaced with native plants. Great blue herons and other wildlife have been seen returning to White Lake and the planned removal from the Area of Concern list will be a victory for wildlife and local residents alike.

Web site: http://www.epa.gov/greatlakes/aoc/whitelake.html

Originally Published: August 8, 2012

Updated: February 5, 2014

One Response to Decades of cleanup work paying off for White Lake

  1. Angel says:

    This story is a great way to show people how easy a little pollution of water can turn into a great catastrophe. I’m going to use this for my research project and it will open the eyes of many people within my district since I am of the area.

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