KALAMAZOO, Mich. — Months after FOX 17 first covered the story, and years after the problem first became clear, thousands and thousands of cubic yards of sediment are still plaguing animals, plants and people on the Kalamazoo River.
The issue first began in October 2019 when Eagle Creek Renewable Energy, operators of the Morrow Dam, drew down levels at their reservoir essentially draining the lake into the Kalamazoo River and with it the thick and harmful muck.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) estimated in March of 2021 that around 450,000 cubic yards of sediment were released into the river during the unauthorized drawdown that took place over nearly the entire course of 2019. Steve Hamilton, a Michigan State University professor and researcher at the Kellogg Biological Station, authored a report that compared the amount of sediment dumped into the river as enough to fill 112 Olympic-sized swimming pools to the brim, and said even that may be a conservative estimate.
Each day the sediment sits dormant at the bottom of the riverbed equates to more harm to flora and fauna. If the sediment does move downstream, it becomes an issue for the next city or township, and at some point could eventually begin the pileup at a choke point.
But despite the clear danger to habitats and recreational activities on the river, FOX 17 has learned that Eagle Creek Renewable Energy has no further plans to clean up the river. Ken Kornheiser, vice president of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, said Eagle Creek did commit to one small dredging project, but it was miniscule in scope, and was only undertaken after EGLE got involved.
“After several months, it seemed that there wasn’t much action done and there were actually violation notices issued by the state agency EGLE,” he said. “But this was in the realm of 10 to 20,000 cubic yards, which is a small fraction, less than 10%, of the amount of sediments that were released.”
EGLE told FOX 17 over the phone Friday that they were satisfied with the singular dredging project undertaken near South Wenke Park, and noted they are still in negotiation with Eagle Creek on continued cleanup work. A spokesperson with EGLE’s Kalamazoo field office told FOX 17 in that same phone conversation that they always try to exhaust their methods for “voluntary compliance,” but also said they were “close to the end of the line” in terms of exercising those options.
Eagle Creek Renewable Energy did not respond to FOX 17’s requests for comment Friday.
“We’re frustrated with how long it’s taken to get any kind of response,” said Matt Diana, a fishery biologist with the Michigan DNR. “The longer it goes on, the longer the recovery will take to begin.”
“As an angler on the river and as a DNR person as well, I’m worried about loss of recreational value there,” he added.
Diana says the impacts affect the river’s plant beds, mussel beds, and the river's main attraction, small mouth bass.
“They like to spawn on clean gravel and cobble substrates, so when we do have sediment deposits in potential spawning areas, it can really impact year-class strength,” said Diana.
Kornheiser is worried for the same reasons and also fears the implications of flooding. The already dangerous habit of the river could grow even worse with all the added volume, especially in the city of Kalamazoo and village of Comstock.
“It was only two or three years ago that there was enough flooding in the Kalamazoo River basin that streets were so badly flooded, in particular the Gull and Riverview intersection, that there were actually cars 100% underwater,” said Kornheiser. “Not just water on the cars but cars within the water on the street that were totally submerged and including one death.”
Kornheiser also notes that recreational activities, be it fishing or boating, are an important sector of the region’s economy. With many boat launches closing down due to inability to access them because of the sediment, opportunities are dwindling.
“For southwest Michigan, and the Kalamazoo River, fishing is a major recreational activity, and human recreational activities are also a big part of the economy,” he said.
Speaking to FOX 17 by phone Friday, an EGLE representative from the Kalamazoo field office said the agency is still working with Eagle Creek Renewable Energy to reach a solution on cleanup. He said they always try to first proceed with “voluntary compliance” measures, but also noted that when it came to exhausting those voluntary options, EGLE was “close to the end of the line.”
He also added that it’s EGLE’s position that Eagle Creek Renewable Energy should be responsible for cleaning up the sediment deposits.
There are no pending lawsuits but Kornheiser thinks it's high time for more robust action, whether it be litigation or involvement from state officials or local legislators.
“I do believe it is well past time for there to be some enforcement actions to compel compliance,” he said. “I would say for the most part we are relatively frustrated with the response of Eagle Creek.”
Kornheiser also noted that many are frustrated with the lack of public information being provided to people while negotiations continue, from both state agencies and Eagle Creek Renewable Energy.
“We are also frustrated with how slow and incremental and under wraps the overall response is,” said Kornheiser. “The public has not been well informed and kept up to date.”
He added, “I’m not aware that there’s new actions, new positions, because nobody on the inside is making anybody aware.”