Force seeks fix to Big Traverse fishery threat

Garrett Neese/Daily Mining Gazette Lori Sherman, center, natural resources director for the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community and a member of the EPA’s Buffalo Reef Task Force, speaks during a meeting to get public input in Lake Linden Tuesday. In back are the other task force members: Steve Casey, U.P. district supervisor of the DEQ’s Water Resources Division, and Tony Friona, Great Lakes liaison for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ Engineer, Research and Development Center.

LAKE LINDEN — An Environmental Protection Agency task force took ideas from the public Tuesday for developing a more permanent solution to the clogging of the Grand Traverse Harbor and Buffalo Reef by toxic stamp sands from former copper mills in Gay.

“We don’t have the local knowledge that’s in this room, so we’re asking you to help,” said Steve Casey, Upper Peninsula district coordinator for the state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) and a member of the task force.

The century-long erosion has seen much of the 22 million tons of stamp sands at the site, left over from the Wolverine and Mohawk stamp mills, wash into and migrate down the 5 miles separating it from Buffalo Reef.

A 2008 survey found 30 percent of Buffalo Reef was covered. The first sands showed up in Grand Traverse (aka Big Traverse) Harbor in 2009.

As the sands have moved south, dredging has bought less and less time. An emergency dredging of 9,000 cubic yards — the most allowed under the permit available at the time — last fall was negated shortly after by a historic storm on Lake Superior.

“What used to be a problem where 4,500 yards of dredging got us through five years, now 9,000 yards doesn’t even get us through three months,” he said.

The reef is now 35 percent covered, which could adversely affect lake trout and whitefish spawning grounds on the reef.

An economic impact analysis showed the Buffalo Reef and Keweenaw Bay fishery generates more than $5.4 million annually, said Keweenaw Economic Development Alliance Executive Director Jeff Ratcliffe.

Tribal fishermen began noticing differences in the fish in Buffalo Reef in the late 1990s, said Lori Sherman of the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community, a member of the task force.

The Superior Band tribes have traditionally been fishing tribes, Sherman said. The fishery has also been a spiritual, cultural and economic resource for the tribes, which can hunt and fish on cede lands and water by treaty.

“We need to consider multi-pronged solutions to solve the stamp sands problems, and all Michiganders, tribal and nontribal, young and old, have a stake in this outcome,” she said.

A $3 million dredging project will be done this summer. That will buy an additional five to seven years, Casey said, but the task force is seeking a long-term fix to solve the problem.

TOMORROW: People of the Keweenaw Peninsula offer advice and ideas on how to dispose of the toxic stamp sands.