Given the problems the Boardman River dam removal effort has had, one would expect those running the project to be sensitive to new issues or questions — from a public relations perspective if nothing else.
That’s one reason the low-key, “there’s nothing to see here” response to the discovery of a tar-like black muck on the river bottom that has tested positive for unsafe levels of arsenic is so puzzling — and so unsatisfactory.
Sally Downer, who has spent her entire life along the shores of the Boardman and lives with her husband Dave on property that has been in her family since the 1940s, was out kayaking with a friend when they found large deposits of black muck on the river bottom. Dave Downer, who said the stuff resembles tar, collected a sample of the dark, viscous stuff in January and sent it to Traverse City-based SOS Analytical’s lab for testing.
The Downers had noticed changes in the river, including the appearance of dense silt, after an Oct. 6 flood caused by construction crews working to empty an upstream pond as part of a massive, multi-million dollar project to remove dams upstream from Boardman Lake and return the river to a more natural state.
A retaining wall that was part of a so-called “dewatering” system gave way, sending millions of gallons of water gushing downstream and tons of silt along with it. The water had been scheduled to be released gradually and most of the silt was expected to be dredged up and hauled away.
The flood did away with those plans.
Sally Downer said the river’s appearance changed. “This is a river where you could always see the bottom,” she said. “It turned black. It smelled.”
The silt has cleared up some, but Sally and her friend discovered the tar-like muck in mid-December. Test results showed levels of arsenic in the muck that exceed Michigan Department of Environmental Quality cleanup criteria, Dave Downer said, findings that he and his wife find troubling.
Dave Downer recently shared results of the lab test with fellow members of the Brown Bridge Advisory Committee, a group that works with local government officials and other agencies on river-related matters. He said he had the muck tested as a private citizen.
Steve Largent, who works for the Grand Traverse Conservation District and is a non-voting member of the Boardman River Dams Implementation Team, the public-private group that oversees the dam removal project, said “I wouldn’t raise a red flag right now.”
Traverse City manager Ben Bifoss, a member of the dam implementation team, said a cleanup plan is being worked on but residents shouldn’t be concerned, based on information he’s seen.
When AMEC, the engineering firm hired to remove the Brown Bridge dam, has completed a cleanup proposal it will be submitted to the state Department of Environmental Quality. Presumably — hopefully may be a better term — the DEQ will then ask someone to find out what that muck is, where it came from, what danger, if any, it poses, and get it cleaned up.
Until then, we the public are right where we were the day after the retaining wall gave way - wondering what gushed down the river and whether it will cause long-term problems for the river or the thousands of people who swim, float, boat, canoe and fish in and on the Boardman.
The whole “these things happen” attitude that has dominated the official response to the Oct. 6 flood is wearing thin. People want answers, and soon. A good place to start may be finding out what that black gunk is, where it came from, and when someone will start cleaning up the mess.
Tomorrow would be fine.