After decades of cleanup efforts, EPA delists the Lower Menominee River as ‘area of concern’

MARINETTE – The river that spawns a large portion of sturgeon for Lake Michigan was taken off a list of polluted areas in need of remediation by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on Tuesday. 

EPA Administrator Andrew Wheeler announced in Marinette that the lower Menominee River was deemed clean enough to be removed from the list after a remediation process that began in the late 1980s. 

During those years, millions of dollars were spent by local governments from both Wisconsin and Michigan, as well as the federal government and private entities, Wheeler said. That money was used to not only dredge the lower portion of the river to remove contaminated sediment but also to study the level of contaminants in fish populations, restore natural habitats and remove invasive species. 

Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew R. Wheeler said Tuesday in Marinette that the Lower Menominee River was taken off a list of polluted areas in need of remediation.

The Menominee River is the first area of concern to be delisted in Wisconsin, and only the fifth nationwide, Wheeler said. Still on the list of sites being cleaned up are St. Louis River, the Milwaukee Estuary, the lower Green Bay and Fox River and the Sheboygan River.

The remediation completion was based on guidelines set in 1990 as part of the Great Lakes Remedial Action Plan. 

“I know the Great Lakes are special and the work we do to protect them and the rivers that flow into them will always be important to me,” Wheeler told the crowd. 

The project included removing 300,000 cubic yards of sediment from the bottom of the river, Wheeler said, and building a fish elevator to help sturgeon reach breeding waters farther up the river. The project cost $178 million, he said, dbetween federal, state and local governments, as well as private companies and entities. 

The river is a popular spot for recreation, including boating and kayaking, as well as fishing. The river is host to several fishing tournaments throughout the year, drawing tourists to northwest Wisconsin. 

A boat leaves the lower Menominee River and enters Green Bay Tuesday in Marinette.

Marinette Mayor Steve Genisot praised the project during Tuesday’s news conference, saying that the river is a highlight for the city. 

“When it comes to kayaking, fishing, boating … this is what the public sees,” Genisot said. “This is a beautiful harbor to showcase for many of our events, like the Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit tournament we just had this weekend.” 

He also told attendees that though the area is delisted, there is still work to do cutting levels of arsenic and PFAS in the water, as well as preventing any pollution from the potential Back Forty mine in Menominee, Michigan. 

Many of those in attendance at the news conference were protesters raising concerns over chemicals in the waters of the Menominee River. Their main concern was PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals,” that have been an issue in the area for years. A short distance up the river is the Johnson Controls/Tyco plant that mixes firefighting foams that contain the chemicals. 

Clean water activists deliver their message offshore as Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Andrew R. Wheeler speaks Tuesday in Marinette. The protesters highlighted the long-lasting impact of PFAS — known as "forever chemicals" — on the environment.

The company began testing the compounds at the Marinette facility in 1962 and ended the practice in 2017. Though remediation has begun at the facility and the company is working to prevent any future releases of the chemical, the lasting impact of the years of testing can still be seen. Those protesting were quick to point that out, asking Wheeler when the Trump administration would be imposing stricter regulations on the use and clean up of PFAS. 

RELATED:What you should know about PFAS, or ‘forever’ chemicals, contaminating drinking water in parts of Wisconsin

Several sources of pollution

The plan to restore the lower Menominee River, which feeds directly into the bay of Green Bay, consisted of five goals, according to EPA documents

  • Put long-term protections in place for natural areas and wetlands within the Area of Concern, including Seagull Bar and riverine islands. 
  • Nesting populations of a diverse array of wetland-dependent and riparian-associated birds are consistently present within the Area of Concern. 
  • Sturgeon population is enhanced. 
  • Diverse and functional native fish and mussel assemblages are present in the Area of Concern that sustain natural recruitment. 
  • A healthy and diverse native vegetation community is restored.

The contamination came from several different sources along the Menominee River, according to EPA documents posted on its website.

One of the sources was Tyco Fire Products, then known as Ansul Fire Protection Co., which generated arsenic salt as a byproduct of herbicide manufacturing between 1957 and 1977. The salt was stored in a bunker near the river, as well as in uncovered piles, which allowed for stormwater runoff, wind erosion and leaching through soil and groundwater that carried the arsenic into the water, the documents say. 

Another source of contamination was another manufacturer, now known as Lloyd Flanders International, which produced woven wicker furniture and metal seating, the documents say. Operations included the painting of furniture that created large amounts of paint sludge, which was either dumped behind the plant onshore or flushed out to Green Bay. 

The final contributor to the pollution noted in the EPA report was Wisconsin Public Service Corp., which operated from 1910 to 1960. The plant created coal tar as a byproduct, which contains contaminants such as sulfur, heavy metals and metalloids such as mercury and arsenic. 

Also noted in the report are human-made changes to the environment near the river. Logging activities in the 1800s damaged an extensive wetland complex near the mouth of the river, land near the mouth of the river was filled for industrial expansion and shorelines that were hardened to prevent erosion during cargo vessel docking. The report also notes that inadequate sewer infrastructures in the cities of Menominee and Marinette caused elevated levels of bacteria, especially during wet weather. 

Wheeler said that though the area has been delisted, monitoring will continue and reviews will be conducted every five years. 

“The biggest measure will be the health and vitality of the Great Lakes,” he said. 

Wheeler will be making several other stops in Wisconsin this week, including a stop in Waukesha on Wednesday to announce a $137 million grant to help the city draw water from Lake Michigan to increase the quality of drinking water for citizens, as well as a stop at the Fox River to announce the final dredging project. 

Laura Schulte can be reached at leschulte@gannett.com and twitter.com/SchulteLaura.