$10 million for EGLE targets ‘buffer sands’ threat to Lake Superior fishery

The bipartisan state budget Governor Gretchen Whitmer signed July 20 includes a down payment on a solution to one of Michigan’s biggest environmental remediation challenges. A $10 million allocation to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) will begin the process of building a 2,000-foot pier to block the relentless march of millions of tons of “buffer sands” along the bottom of Lake Superior. .

Buffalo reef pier concept.

The sands – a remnant of ancient copper mining in the Upper Peninsula – now threaten one of the lake’s vital spawning grounds for whitefish and lake trout.

The pier will also serve as a base of operations to stop and repair the damage caused by the spreading sand – part of a “long-term adaptive management plan” which is expected to be unveiled by the US Army Corps of Engineers towards the end. end of August before a public comment period and a summary of EGLE’s responsiveness.

“I’m proud that the balanced, bipartisan state budget I signed a few weeks ago – my fourth – will help us build a pier to block buffer sands along the bottom of Lake Superior, an ecological threat which has been in the making for decades,” the governor said. Gretchen Whitmer. “Solving the stamp sands crisis won’t be quick or easy, but Michiganders working with tribal, federal and private partners will get it done. Together, we are ready to meet this challenge. I will work with anyone to protect our Great Lakes, ensuring they are clean and safe for future generations.

Darker and rougher than the typical golden sand of Michigan beaches, buffer sands are the residue, or pulverized rock, left over from the processing of copper ore. In roughly a century ending in the 1930s, mines on UP’s Keweenaw Peninsula produced and dumped tens of billions of pounds of waste, both on land and in the lake – where waves, winds, currents and ice continue to spread for miles along the coast south of the community of Gay.

In recent years, sunken sand has begun to seep into the rocky 2,200-acre spawning ground known as Buffalo Reef, filling in the crevices where fish lay their eggs and hatchlings take shelter. The pad sands also contain copper residues that are toxic to aquatic life, leaving a barren expanse in their wake.

In 2017, the United States Environmental Protection Agency, the Army Corps, the Indian community of Keweenaw Bay, and the State of Michigan joined forces to form the Buffalo Reef Task Force. The EPA used funds from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative (GLRI) to dredge buffer sands as a temporary measure while the task force narrowed down up to 13 potential solutions to the final three options.

These options, including building a 240-acre landfill inside the lake, were discussed at a public meeting held by EGLE in July, when the area’s seasonal residents are typically present. Whichever solution the corps chooses in its next report, the planned jetty will serve as a location where sand could be removed from the lake.

It is expected to take up to 20 years to move the 22.7 million metric tons, or 16 million cubic yards, of material involved. While cost estimates won’t be available until the Army Corps completes its report, the EPA is already seeking nongovernmental sponsors such as advocacy groups and foundations to help foot the bill.

Buffalo Reef is estimated to produce about one-third of all lake trout caught in Michigan’s waters of Lake Superior. The Great Lakes Indian Fish and Wildlife Commission estimates the economic benefits of the reef to the Keweenaw region at approximately $1.7 million per year.

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