Mining impact on Torch Lake studied

HOUGHTON – Most of the copper mining on the Keweenaw Peninsula and surrounding areas ended in the late 1960s, but some of the environmental and social problems from that era persist to the present.

A panel discussion at the Portage Lake District Library Tuesday about the “Impacts of Legacy Mining on Torch Lake” examined how mining and its follow-on activities, particularly smelting, affected Torch Lake in particular.

Giving the presentation were Carol MacLennan, Michigan Technological University associate professor of social sciences, Noel Urban, Tech professor of environmental engineering, and Judith Perlinger, Tech professor of environmental engineering.

Urban said their integrated assessment of Torch Lake conducted over the past two years was funded by a Michigan Sea Grant, which is part of national Sea Grant program intended to study areas with significant coastlines.

“We certainly have a big coastline,” he said of Michigan.

Urban said the federal and state governments began looking at Torch Lake in the early 1980s and the federal Environmental Protection Agency declared Torch Lake and surrounding areas a Superfund site. Some work, such as covering stamp sands, has been done, but more work needs to be done.

“There hasn’t been rapid progress on some fronts,” he said.

MacLennan, who studies how people interact with their environment, said there were hundreds of buildings along the shore of Torch Lake from Mason to Lake Linden involved in some capacity with copper mining, and some still remain. There is an effort to find where the buildings, which no longer exist, were located so the areas around them can be studied for possible contamination.

In the late 19th century, MacLennan said copper mining companies moved their stamping mills from near the mines in the higher elevations down to Torch Lake.

“It generated a lot of stamp sand,” she said.

That stamp sand was placed in Torch Lake.

“Prior to 1970, Torch Lake was considered a dump site,” she said. “As a society, we weren’t thinking about what we put into the water.”

In the 1920s and early 1940s, MacLennan said mining companies did some reclamation of stamp sands to remove residual copper, but the sands were then put back into the lake.

MacLennan said waste from copper mining and smelting included stamp sands and smelter slag, coal byproducts from energy production, and copper, arsenic and mercury, all of which were in the water and soil around Torch Lake.

Urban, who studies water quality issues, said for years, fish taken out of Torch Lake had tumors on their skins.

“That issue really raised a lot of concern,” she said.

Because of the number of fish found with tumors, Urban said EPA officials studied the lake and decided to create the Superfund site. The focus was on the stamp sands and how they affect people living around the lake.

“People could breathe that in,” he said of airborne stamp sands.

After the Torch Lake Superfund site was created, Urban said the EPA began covering stamp sands with soil and vegetation to keep it from becoming airborne. In 2006, the agency declared all the stamp sands around Torch Lake covered.

“The Superfund activity is almost over,” he said.

However, the EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality are still concerned about the health effects on people of eating fish taken out of Torch Lake.

There is a layer of stamp sand at the bottom of Torch Lake that is covered by a layer of sediment. However, that sediment is not thick enough to prevent toxins from the stamp sands from leaching through into the water. The toxins, including arsenic, mercury, and polychlorinated biphynals from electricity production, end up in the fish.

Besides the EPA and DEQ, Urban said other state agencies involved with Torch Lake are the Michigan Department of Community Health and the Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

“There’s no coordination of any of this activity,” he said.

Perlinger, who studies environmental behavior and effects of organic pollutants, said the federal government has declared 43 Areas of Concern for environmental issues in the United States, and Michigan has 14 of them, including Torch Lake. The AOC are able to have access to funding for study and remediation projects in those areas.

In order to get funding, Perlinger said there is a process required, including: having a local active citizens group with an established definition of success for their efforts; a watershed management council; an action plan; and an updated remedial action plan.

“This could be one way of proceeding,” she said of the remaining issues with Torch Lake.

The goals for the Torch Lake AOC are: delisting from the Superfund; remediate and restore the area; create water which is safe for swimming; have safe, edible fish in the lake; and make the lake desirable for tourism and property development of the shoreline.

“All of these are possible and each requires different actions,” she said.