No easy solution for stamp sands

Kali Katerberg/Daily Mining Gazette Steve Casey (right) from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Resources Division and Steve Check (left) of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers detail potential stamp sand alternatives and challenges Wednesday at the State of Lake Superior Conference in Houghton.

HOUGHTON — Put it in the mines, deposit it in deep water, form a business — there is no shortage of ideas for dealing with toxic stamp sand threatening Buffalo Reef, but they all come with unique considerations.

A 2019 dredging of sands back up the shoreline has already been planned, but officials say it is only a short-term solution to buy time for something more permanent.

The emergency measure will give the reef around five more years, said Steve Casey, district supervisor for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Water Resources Division.

The current planning timeline has researchers exploring the many potential long-term solutions. The alternatives are being evaluated now through March of 2019.

By March the best two to four solutions will be selected. Those options will be refined through December of 2020, with a final selection in March of 2021 when funding will be pursued.

“We need to come up with alternatives for what we’re going to do with this material, because you’re talking 15 million cubic yards. It’s got to go somewhere, or you do nothing and the reef dies,” said Steve Check, project manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

There are several potential solutions being investigated in this stage, each with their own benefits, considerations and downsides.

“It could be a combination of two alternatives,” said Check.

Moving the sands is one idea. The problems are where to put it and the cost of transportation. Possible locations include the White Pine tailings basins, mine shafts, a special landfill and on land nearby.

Nearby comes with the benefit of easy transportation but potential locations would include valuable coastal wetlands. Further away locations would be costly to transport sands to and each location comes with its own considerations, for example, mine stability and water removal and lining to prevent leaching.

Another option would be to let the sands move out naturally, building a new reef or stocking to mitigate the loss of the reef.

Calculations show the original pile of sands will have moved out by 2080 but the reef and shoreline would take even longer perhaps taking until 2240 to clear the bay.

With no response and fish stocking yearly, problems include high replacement costs and the fact that the sands would move on to impact other communities, Casey explained.

Deepwater disposal is another option with challenges including impact on organisms there and transportation.

Potential uses for the sands by entrepreneurs are also being explored.