Stamp sand, erosion threatens lake coast: Locals urge state, federal funding for dredging, fix

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette photos Michigan Technological University professor Charles Kerfoot (this photo) and Schoolcraft Township Trustee Kevin Codere, speak during public comments to the Michigan Natural Resources Commission board during its meeting Thursday in Houghton.

HOUGHTON — A delegation of local officials spoke at Thursday’s Natural Resources Commission meeting in Houghton about the need for a permanent solution to the erosion of stamp sand from the Gay shore.

Charles Kerfoot, a professor at Michigan Technological University, spoke on the threat stamp sands pose to Buffalo Reef and Grand Big Traverse Bay. The Army Corps of Engineers and Environmental Protection Agency sponsored a study, which included multi-spectral scanning.

“We’re aware that there’s a large metal halo around the Keweenaw Peninsula,” he said. “That’s a consequence of past copper mining.”

Stamp sands have migrated along extensive stretches of shoreline, threatening critical fish breeding grounds and coastal benthic invertebrate communities, damming stream and river outlets, intercepting wetlands and compromising recreational beaches, Kerfoot said.

Buffalo Reef in Big Traverse Bay is one of the most productive spawning regions for lake trout and lake whitefish in the area, Kerfoot said, producing 8 percent of the fish in the Keweenaw Bay.

The reef is being threatened by the migration of copper tailings from a century-old pile off the shores of Gay. They come from the Mohawk and Wolverine mills, which discharged 22.7 million metric tons of stamp sands. Those have since progressively moved westward along the beach or underwater.

About $300,000 had been appropriated to the DNR to do emergency dredging this summer, Kerfoot said.

Kerfoot used LIDAR and multiple-spectrum scanner to show the movement of the tailings. The reef had been protected by an ancient riverbed; westward encroachment of the stamp sands had moved into a boulder field. The movement is causing severe overtopping into the Traverse River, he said.

The study recommends dredging the trough and the Traverse River, which Kerfoot said would buy about three to five years. They also recommend a retaining wall to complement the dredging.

Kerfoot cited an estimate that put the annual loss in revenues to the Bad River, Red Cliff and Keweenaw Bay tribes at $1.7 million a year.

Schoolcraft Township Trustee Kevin Codere, who works at Peninsula Copper Industries in Lake Linden, said the company had studied the stamp sands to see if it was a viable chemical feedstock.

“If it was located in Arizona, it would be a mine, because there’s wholly a quarter percent evenly disseminated copper throughout that stamp pile,” he said.

A dredging took place two years ago but was undone by a single storm, Codere said. That’s due in part to high lake levels, strong easterly storms and the height of the pile, which exceeds the breakwall.

“Any dredging in the future, you have to absolutely spend enough money to take care of the pile next to it, or within one or two storms, we’ll be right back where we are,” he said.

The Schoolcraft Township harbor has about 2.5 feet of water, Codere said. Flooding didn’t happen this spring, as was worried, but it is still a future concern.

In the long term, the township is talking to sources, including the EPAS, Army Corps, DNR, Department of Environmental Quality, KBIC, Michigan Tech, two counties and three townships, Codere said. A permanent solution could cost $25 million, he said.

The federal government would hopefully contribute most of the money, although the state will have to contribute some matching money as well, Codere said.

“We have contacted all the representatives and all the senators, both federal and state, to effect a movement in that area,” he said.

NRC members toured the site the day before the meeting. DNR Director Keith Creagh said the issue was already present when he was a Michigan Tech student in the 1970s. He asked about potential end use for stamp sands.

Codere said the Army Corps had proposed a $12 million project in which material south of the coal dock would be returned to the original pile, with a ribbon of rock added to prevent erosion.

At that time, he said, it was considered a 50-year solution.

“The ultimate solution would be to get it out of the lake, and put it adjacent to the lake and likely move it into an area as close as possible.”

The material is rock, which is expensive to move and has low value, Codere said. One company has researched using the material to create roofing tiles. Codere’s company has also looked into the process.

“We chose not to invest in that at that point in time, because it’s simply not economically viable at this point in time,” he said. “The government cannot hope that there’s a private solution there, because there is none.”

Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Jeff Ratcliffe agreed there doesn’t appear to be a private-sector solution. But the activity has impacted on the tribes’ and the area’s cultural heritage. He offered to involve KEDA as an organizing point in the area for a strategy to combat the problem.

“If everybody stays in a corner, and we wait for the Army Corps to do it, or wait for the EPA to come up with the money, we’re going to be 20,30 years down the road and we’re going to ruin a valuable resource that all of us depend on,” he said.