June 3, 2014
Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula is embraced by one of the largest freshwater lakes in the world. It entails forested hills, picturesque views, northern lights, summer thimbleberries, fall colors, record snow-falls, unique historical sites, rich Scandinavian and multi-cultural heritage, year- round community festivals and endless outdoor recreational activities.
Ancient volcanic eruptions formed our beautiful Keweenaw Peninsula and brought the world’s largest masses of pure copper to the surface. Our present-day Copper Country legacy is attributed to industrial copper mining that boomed in the area from the1890’s to the late 1960s.
While much of the copper mining money went east decades ago and into the pockets of companies no longer in existence, it left behind ghost towns and approximately 500 million tons of waste mine tailings called stamp sands. These stamp sands were carelessly discarded across the Keweenaw Peninsula and directly into our inland lakes, streams and Lake Superior.
Stamp sands contain trace metals, and some were reprocessed with toxic chemicals to reclaim additional copper before returned to land and waterways. The historical copper mining era also left behind smelter slag and coal byproducts from energy production.
Torch Lake was the primary dump site. It was declared a Superfund site by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in the early 1980s after fish deformities were reported. Decades of Superfund restoration helped to stabilize, vegetate and delist some stamp sand areas.
Much more work needs to be done though according to Michigan Tech researchers. No efforts were taken to really understand and address stamp sands and cancer-causing toxins like PCBs within the lake itself.
Being such a massive environmental problem, government agencies chose to assume the lake would naturally recover in 850 years, or about 34 generations. Torch Lake remains one of the most problematic Great Lakes Areas of Concern designated under the binational Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement due to ongoing degradation and fish consumption advisories.
While contamination levels vary and each stamp sand pile is unique, there is significant documentation regarding the toxicity of stamp sands including the leaching of arsenic, lead, copper and mercury. The health effects of arsenic usually include pigmentation changes and skin cancer (and possibly bladder and lung cancers), and it is more harmful when exposed through drinking water.
Lead inhaled or ingested is particularly harmful to children and can lead to permanent adverse effects to brain and nervous system development. Young children are especially vulnerable due to their innate hand-to-mouth curiosity, and they absorb lead 4-5 times more than adults. Adults exposed to elevated lead levels are at higher risk of high blood pressure and kidney damage.
Copper is an essential element, but excess levels due to mining degrades ecosystems and can cause gastrointestinal upset and liver failure in severe cases. Research by Michigan Tech professor Charles Kerfoot found a high correlation between increased copper and a loss of microbes that break down mercury. Mercury, primarily exposed to humans through fish consumption, can cause irreversible neurological damage to a developing fetus.
The Michigan Department of Community Health has concluded it is difficult to determine how harmful airborne stamp sands are to our health, including those used for winter road traction. It was found, however, that Calumet’s Point Mills stamp sands may cause short or long term harm.
There is not enough site-specific data or resources to evaluate each stamp sand pile individually. Children are at higher risk of exposure during outdoor play, and kids with asthma are especially vulnerable.
Where stamp sands dominate, the land is unable to support vegetation and lake areas are devoid of benthos. Benthos is bottom dwelling aquatic organisms critical to our ecosystem as a food source for fish and filter for water quality.
Stamp sands are hazardous to our fisheries regardless of toxicity due to their large amount of fine material that fills in small rock openings used to shelter eggs and young fish. Buffalo Reef in Grand Traverse Bay is an important Lake Superior whitefish and lake trout spawning area threatened by encroaching stamp sands.
If natural reproduction is lost at Buffalo Reef, it is projected to cost $380,000 annually to replace lake trout through stocking efforts. The community as a whole depends on local fisheries for recreational values and economic well-being. Tribal fish harvesters have federal treaty rights to fisheries and depend on them for subsistence and cultural identity.
So how do we solve the stamp sand problem?
State Senator Tom Casperson’s proposal is to legislate away concerns by reclassifying stamp sands as non-hazardous. Senate Bill 872 was introduced this spring and awaits a full Senate vote to deregulate stamp sands under Michigan’s Natural Resources Environmental Protection Act.
SB 872 exempts stamp sands as a hazardous substance alongside harmless fruits, vegetables and things used for agricultural purposes.
SB 872 is not the solution. It may hinder environmental management objectives and confuse public perception. If stamp sands were safe, there would be no reason for writing an exemption into law.
What we need is more robust public health assessments and policy guided by evidence and science, not special interests anxious to develop Torch Lake waterfront property. We owe it to future generations to responsibly restore our beloved Keweenaw Peninsula degraded in areas by legacy mining activities.
Jessica Koski is mining technical assistant with the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community.