State, local and federal officials announced an agreement on Tuesday to hasten the clean-up of industrial pollution that’s plagued Milwaukee’s waterways for decades.
The plan is meant to eliminate soil contamination in the Milwaukee estuary, a waterway system that’s been a prime spot for pollution concerns for more than 30 years. In early January, officials with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and city of Milwaukee reached a deal to provide additional money for the ongoing clean-up and lay out a plan to accelerate the work.
Milwaukee Mayor Tom Barrett said the agreement — and the attached promise of millions in federal dollars — will produce the desired results much sooner than would have been possible under previous efforts. Despite the millions that the city has already spent cleaning up up the estuary, it could still need 20 years at its current pace, Barrett said.
With the new agreement, though, the clean-up is expected to take only about eight years.
“You’re talking about reversing over 100 years of economic activity,” Barrett said. “I’m actually proud of our manufacturing past, but we know that there was a price that came with it.”
The Milwaukee estuary is made up of the city’s three major rivers, as well as the various streams that feed into that system. It was officially designated a federal Area of Concern in 1987, signifying that it was among the most polluted parts of the Great Lakes. Much of the contamination has come from heavy metals and other substances, which have been found responsible for deformities in animals such as fish and birds and led to restrictions on wildlife consumption and dredging in the waterways.
With the new clean-up agreement in place, inspectors will now begin mapping the estuary’s waterways and testing soil for contamination. Attempts to learn the exact extent of the pollution and draw up a remediation plan could still take a year, said Preston Cole, secretary designee of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
The agreement announced on Tuesday is for $29.2 million worth of work. Of the money used for the project, 35% is to come from non-federal sources, such as the city or state. The deal also allows in-kind contributions of things like land to store contaminated sediment.
Cole went on to warn the final cost could prove much higher, perhaps as much as $100 million.
“It’s going to be long and drawn out. Our responsibility is to follow the law, and of course, follow the science,” Cole said. “This is not the first rodeo for the DNR in managing these types of projects.”
The needed clean-up work may not actually begin for two years or so, Cole said. Once it does, it will be fairly “straightforward.” Crews will eventually have to dredge up polluted sediment from waterways and replace it with clean fill.
Among other goals, officials are hoping the restoration work will cause the estuary to be removed from the Area of Concern list.
“The Area of Concern work is the single most important thing we can do today to improve water quality for the future,” said Kevin Shafer, executive director of the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District. “We want to leave Milwaukee and the Great Lakes better than we found it.”Follow @natebeck9