Historic Paper Mills and Contaminated Sediments

Legacy of Contaminated Sediments

Discharges into the Kalamazoo River from some historic paper industry recycling processes created very serious contamination problems prior to the 1970s. The primary contaminant is a class of synthetic industrial compounds called polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs, for short, a hazardous substance and probable human carcinogen. PCBs were introduced to Portage Creek and the Kalamazoo River through disposal of PCB-contaminated paper residuals and associated drainage. The disposal areas (now often referred to as landfills) are situated on the river banks and contain millions of cubic yards of PCB-contaminated waste. The contaminated sediments were largely deposited in Kalamazoo River impoundment areas downstream of source areas (e.g., Plainwell Dam, Otesgo City and Township Dams, Trowbridge Dam, and Calkins [Lake Allegan Dam]).

The contaminated area includes three miles of Portage Creek from Cork Street just above Bryant Mill Pond in the city of Kalamazoo, to its mouth at the Kalamazoo River, and from Morrow Dam on the Kalamazoo River for 80 miles downstream to Lake Michigan.

PCB discharges have been essentially eliminated because of a ban on their production and other regulatory point source controls, but large amounts of uncontrolled contaminants are still present in and near portions of the river channel in the lower Kalamazoo River valley floodplain. It has been estimated that the river sediments contain more than 120,000 pounds of PCBs within millions of cubic yards of contaminated sediment, soils, and paper residuals. This site is being addressed through federal, state, and responsible parties’ actions.

PCBs in the river system and in river sediments can “biomagnify” in the food web. Fish, being several links up the food chain, may have high concentrations of contaminants in their bodies. Older fish often have the highest concentrations. Humans are exposed to PCBs by eating contaminated fish and wildlife. Federal and state fish consumption guidelines establish an action level of 2 mg/kg total PCBs in edible portions of fish tissue. PCB concentrations in fillets of many species of fish from Portage Creek and the Kalamazoo River typically exceed this threshold. The Michigan Department of Community Health has issued fish consumption advisories for the Kalamazoo River and Portage Creek for many years and maintains a fish consumption guidebook.

Many people question whether touching the river sediments or incidental swallowing of small amounts of water (for example, during wading, swimming, or falling out of a canoe) can cause health concerns. PCBs in the river are almost entirely bound to sediment and soil particles, and are not usually present at levels of concern in the water unless contaminated sediments have been disturbed and suspended in the water. Therefore, PCB concentrations in surface waters generally do not exceed levels at which increased health risks would be incurred. [Read more and view the investigation report completed by the Michigan Department of Community Health and the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry; Aiello 2006].


The Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act – otherwise known as CERCLA or Superfund – provides a Federal “Superfund” to clean up uncontrolled or abandoned hazardous-waste sites as well as accidents, spills, and other emergency releases of pollutants and contaminants into the environment. Through CERCLA, EPA was given power to seek out those parties responsible for any release and assure their cooperation in the cleanup. Through various enforcement tools, EPA obtains private party cleanup through orders, consent decrees, and other small party settlements. EPA also recovers costs from financially viable individuals and companies once a response action has been completed.

In June, 1990 the Michigan Department of Natural Resources notified three potentially responsible parties (PRPs), Allied Paper, Inc. (Millennium Holdings, LLC), the Georgia-Pacific Corporation, and Simpson Plainwell Paper Company (now Weyerhaeuser), of their intent to spend public funds to conduct a remedial investigation/feasibility study. In August 1990, the Allied Paper, Inc./Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River site was included on the National Priorities List, commonly known as Superfund. MDEQ was designated as the lead agency at that time. The Allied Paper, Inc./Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River Superfund site includes five disposal areas, five paper mill properties, an approximately 80-mile stretch of the Kalamazoo River from the Morrow Lake dam to Lake Michigan, and a three-mile stretch of Portage Creek.

At this time, the site is divided into five cleanup projects known as operable units (OUs):

  • OU #1 – Allied Paper Property/Bryant Mill Pond Area
  • OU #2 – Willow Boulevard and A-Site Landfill
  • OU #3 – Kings Highway Landfill
  • OU #4 – 12th Street Landfill
  • OU #5 – Portage Creek and Kalamazoo River sediments (sub-delineated into seven “areas”)

EPA’s cleanup approach for the Kalamazoo River is to first eliminate ongoing sources of PCBs to the river, which includes the exposed paper wastes along the river banks and flood plain soils (or impoundments), and then address in-stream sediments. The exposed paper wastes are particularly abundant behind State-owned and privately-owned dams along the river, where the formerly impounded areas allowed sediment to accumulate (these dams are taken down to their sills now). Before evaluating cleanup options for in-stream sediments, EPA will investigate upstream sources of PCBs and evaluate the existing landfill OUs and paper mill properties to ensure they are not a source of PCBs to the river. Generally, EPA’s cleanup will begin upstream and work downstream on a reach-by-reach and dam-to-dam basis.

Several cleanup actions have occurred or are in process at source areas on or near the banks of Portage Creek and the Kalamazoo River. Read more about the EPA Cleanup status.

In a bankruptcy court settlement in 2010, the company that was holding the Allied Paper properties and liabilities, Millennium Holdings, Inc., was dissolved when its parent company, Lyondell/Basell went through Chapter 11 bankruptcy, ultimately emerging and continuing global operations. Financial liabilities were settled for the Allied Landfill property and cleanup obligations downstream of the Allied Site for approximately 10 percent of what Federal agencies estimated (according to court documents) was required for full river valley cleanup. Under the settlement the U.S. EPA has received about $103 million total for cleanup of the Allied Paper/Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River Superfund Site. A custodial trust was established to take ownership and possession of environmentally contaminated properties owned by Lyondell or its affiliates. One of these properties is the Allied Paper Mill. Approximately $50 million of the trust funds will be dedicated to the cleanup of the Allied Paper Mill. Additionally, the settlement requires Lyondell to pay approximately $49.5 million to resolve liabilities at the Allied Paper/Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River Superfund Site.

The United States will also receive approximately $3.2 million in payout on its allowed general unsecured claim against Lyondell/Millennium for the Allied Paper/Portage Creek/Kalamazoo River Superfund Site. The agreement relieves Lyondell/Millennium from any future financial responsibility at the Allied Superfund site.

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