‘It’s one thing after another’ as paper mill waste spills into Kalamazoo River
KALAMAZOO, MI – There always seems to be something disgusting coming out of the Graphic Packaging International Paper Mill in Kalamazoo these days.
That was Ryan Baker’s reaction when he learned that Graphic Packaging had spilled industrial sewage into the Kalamazoo River this week, triggering a no-contact order along a nearly six-mile stretch of the river. north of Kalamazoo.
Whether it’s emitting nitrogen oxides in violation of one’s permit, or venting a rotten, potentially toxic stench that wrinkles the nose of surrounding neighborhoods, or sending PFAS chemicals into the system of sewage, Baker feels the latest release of pollutants shows a disturbing pattern of a company with a large footprint along the river.
“Now it’s a mysterious substance from their homes that’s being dumped into the storm drains,” said Baker, president of the Kalamazoo River Alliance, a local fishing group. “It’s one thing after another with Graphic Packaging right now.”
After: The factory will be fined for repeated violations
On Thursday, October 20, between 3,000 and 5,000 gallons of partially treated sewage spilled from the plant grounds into a pipe and ditch that discharged into the river. About 1,500 gallons actually reached the river, according to state environmental officials. The rest was pumped into the nearby Kalamazoo municipal sewage treatment plant.
What exactly was in the dump? For the moment, it is not clear. The Graphic Packaging factory makes recycled cardboard and uses chemicals, some of them toxic, in the process. City and state officials say they are testing the river and the equipment involved.
The sewage does not come from the municipal sanitary sewer system and does not present the type of bacterial disease vector risk associated with sewage overflows.
“Because the waste stream wouldn’t contain disease-causing organisms, it’s kind of unique,” said James Baker, the city’s utility manager.
The no-contact order issued by the Kalamazoo County Health Department, which remained in place Saturday morning, was “more a matter of abundance of caution,” Baker said.
The order warns people to touch the river between Paterson Street and the Avenue D Bridge.
The tests look for chemicals like PFAS, volatile organic compounds and petroleum hydrocarbons, among other pollutants, Baker said.
“We should get samples before we can confidently tell the public that there is no risk here,” he said.
What exactly happened at Graphic Packaging this week also remains under investigation.
The spill was caused by a “sump pit that pumps sewage into a clarifier for pre-treatment,” which “overflowed through a roll-up door and into a storm sewer,” said Jill Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the Department of Health. Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. (EGLE).
“The sewage treatment plant records indicate that past discharges of treated sewage met state standards,” Greenberg said. “EGLE asked GPI to sample the wastewater from the pump where the release is believed to have occurred prior to full treatment.”
Graphic Packaging released a statement Friday through a public relations firm downplaying the spill, saying it reported a dump “involving a sump pit that was overflowing with paper fiber and water” at 6:30 a.m. Thursday at the city and state.
The company called it “a minor incident” near “a section of the Kalamazoo River undergoing a Superfund cleanup unrelated to Graphic Packaging.”
James Baker had a different characterization.
“This is an illegal discharge into a municipal storm sewer,” he said, which is a violation of city code.
Baker said the Utilities Department will work with the city attorney’s office on enforcement actions and seek “structural changes” at Graphic Packaging.
“We want to make sure this doesn’t happen again,” Baker said. “Everything that has gone wrong, has gone wrong. Let’s make changes to the storm sewer system. We will have to identify the corrections there.
Ryan Baker noted that people are recreating on the six-mile stretch of river that is not under a no-contact order. The weather is unusually warm this weekend and kayakers often dive into the river at Parchment and paddle north to D Avenue.
Baker, a catch-and-release angler, spends a lot of time on the river and says a brown scum “with a smell of pulp” that wasn’t there before showed up in the downstream eddies.
“It doesn’t seem like a minor issue if the county is telling people to stay out of the water,” he said.
Doug McLaughlin, director of the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council, said citizens were “rightly frustrated by incidents like this”.
The Graphic Packaging spill isn’t the only corporate abuse of the Kalamazoo River in recent years. The river, which has long suffered from PCB-contaminated sediment that has rendered fish unsafe to eat, was nailed by a massive oil spill from Enbridge in 2010. As of 2019, it has been choked with 369,000 tonnes of sediment reservoir discharged through Morrow Dam, hampering PCB cleanup and smothered wildlife habitat.
“As a community, we need to better understand the opportunities that exist to keep the focus on what needs to be done to prevent these things,” said McLaughlin, a water quality scientist who previously worked in the pulp and paper industry.
McLaughlin said companies likely to dump pollutants into the river should promote its management with the same zeal they put into preventing workplace accidents.
“We have to think of events like this in the same way.”
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