Task force to explore stamp sand fixes

Michigan Department of Natural Resources photo A view looking south shows the stamp sands deposited in the foreground, the Grand Traverse Harbor in the center and the natural sand beaches and homes south of the harbor in the background. A task force is exploring long-term solutions to the erosion of stamp sands from the Gay shoreline into the Grand Traverse Harbor.

GRAND TRAVERSE HARBOR — This fall, a Department of Natural Resources dredging project moved 9,000 cubic yards of stamp sands that threatened to choke off the Grand Traverse Harbor.

In late October, a Lake Superior storm undid much of the $246,630 project within a day.

So a more lasting fix is needed to prevent the migration of stamp sands from the pile in Gay. Over the next couple of years, a cooperative task force formed by the Environmental Protection Agency will be taking ideas from the public and other sources on how to develop a more permanent plan.

The task force will start with a public meeting from 6 to 8 p.m. Dec. 5 at the Lake Linden-Hubbell High School Auditorium. It includes representatives from the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, Army Corps of Engineers and the Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ).

The task force will cover the history of the stamp sands, the current situation and with what issues the task force will be dealing. It will also take suggestions for other issues that are not on its radar yet and ideas for additional collaborators.

“We don’t want to prejudice this in any one direction or another,” said Steve Casey, Upper Peninsula district supervisor for the Michigan DEQ’s Water Resources Division and a member of the task force. “We want to lay out all the possibilities, and by next March we’re hoping to have narrowed our focus on two or three or however many options look promising.”

One option involves taking the stamp sand to the White Pine mine site for further processing to remove the copper, and then putting the remaining tailings in the mine, Casey said.

The top priority, Casey said, is finding a beneficial use for the stamp sands. The MTEC SmartZone is studying the issue.

Some companies have permits to remove the stamp sands for reuse, but haven’t found customers yet, he said.

“We’re looking to do whatever we can to facilitate a beneficial use, because that’s the best thing we can do, turn it into a useful product,” he said.

The stamp sands are the waste left over from the from the milling at the stamp mill at Gay, where the Mohawk and Wolverine mines transported their copper ore. Winds and currents have taken much of the original pile at Gay along the 5 miles to the Grand Traverse Harbor.

The sand is also filling spaces at the Buffalo Reef, a nearby spawning habitat vital for lake trout and whitefish populations in the area. About 60 percent of the reef is projected to be unusable for spawning fish by 2025.

In order to do dredging this year, an existing permit had to be used, which put a cap of 9,000 cubic yards on the project, Casey said. Before a permanent plan is put in place, other temporary measures are in the works. A permitting decision is set for Dec. 14 on a $3.1 million dredging project scheduled to start in May.

About 172,500 cubic yards of stamp sands would be removed from the area north of Buffalo Reef. Another 20,000 yards would be removed from Grand Traverse Harbor, while another 10,000 cubic yards would come from upland of the harbor.

“That’ll be a much larger dredge and will be able to protect the harbor during a larger storm,” he said.

That dredging should buy about five to seven years, Casey said.

The task force hopes for a control mechanism to start work by 2021, with arrangements for long-term dredging by 2026. A long-term solution will probably cost more than $100 million, Casey said. They’re looking not just at government sources, but also private foundations interested in environmentally beneficial projects.

“You would hope that some interested party would step up,” he said. “Everything’s on the table.”