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WUWM's Susan Bence reports on Wisconsin environmental issues.

Clean Up Underway In Milwaukee Estuary — From Burnham Canal Wetland To Proposed Contaminated Sediment Removal

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Milwaukee Metropoiltan Sewerage District
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It will be years before the long-blighted Burnham Canal springs to life as an urban wetland.

In recent years, Milwaukee’s rivers have gradually been revitalized — becoming cleaner and more welcoming to fish, wildlife and humans.

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Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
The Burnham Canal project (starred) is a small piece of the EPA-designated Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern.

But decades before cleanups began, manufacturers commonly dumped waste into the waterways. That toxic legacy contributed to the EPA designating the Milwaukee Estuary as an “area of concern."

Advocates say a series of projects, some underway and others proposed, will help lift that designation.

One project to dredge and store vast amounts of contaminated sediment will be discussed at a public meeting Tuesday evening. Another project, already in the works, aims to transform a polluted canal into a wetland.

Right now, there’s nothing natural looking about the Burnham Canal located just north of where 11th Street meets Bruce Street in Milwaukee, except for an occasional bird soaring overhead or skimming the water’s edge.

Patrick Elliott is senior project manager with the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District (MMSD) and explains the canal’s legacy of contamination: “Miller Compressing in the '70s and '80s had a furnace at the west end of the canal. They were a metal recycler and so the waste that was generated by that furnace essentially just ran off into the canal. So now you have sediments throughout the canal that are contaminated with metals, primarily copper."

The channel was so contaminated, the EPA deemed it a Superfund site. And, that meant Miller Compressing needed to come up with a cleanup plan.

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Susan Bence
Miller Compressing's section of the wetland restoration project.

So, what does MMSD have to do with all this?

“Kevin Shafer, our executive director, when he found out that Miller Compressing was going to move forward with a cap that was the typical remedial action, and he approached Miller Compressing and said why don’t you just create a wetland," Elliot says.

In turn, MMSD would pick up where Miller Compressing’s 4-acre wetland would end and extend it another 2.5 acres downstream. Elliott says the Army Corps of Engineers provided its design expertise and are “working with EPA and DNR to get approvals on the change to their design.”

With every other surface in sight paved, Corey Zetts with Menomonee Valley Partners calls the wetland a creative solution.

“When you look at the historic maps of the valley, there were canals all over the place, a lot of businesses had their own, all of those other ones beside the south Menomonee have been filled in. I think it’s really exciting, taking this canal that has a legacy of contamination and turning into something that leads to cleaner water, reduced contact with contamination and fish species and also habitat for plants and native wildlife,” says Zetts.

It will be a while before native plants are planted and take hold. Elliott says in the meantime, he’s learning from Miller Compressing. The company started constructing its end of the wetland first.

“They had two barges that went back and forth. One would take the material out there and with spreader equipment, they would shoot the material and it sprinkled it down in a controlled fashion,” he explains. “We haven’t done one of these things before, we’ll use lessons learned for the east side of the project.”

The Burnham Canal wetland might be innovative, but there is much more contamination to deal with in the Milwaukee Estuary — an estimated 130,000 truckloads worth.

Nothing, advocates say, a dredge material management facility can’t handle.

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Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
Material routinely dredged from Milwaukee's harbor to keep is navigable is already stored just north of the Lake Express ferry terminal. The proposed dredge material management facility (DMMF) would be created next to it.

To explain exactly what that is, and where it's being proposed, MMSD' Kevin Shafer meets me in the parking lot of the Lake Express ferry — just south of the harbor on Lake Michigan.

“A dredge material management facility is really a storage place to place all of these sediments that have accumulated over the years in the bottom of the rivers and the estuary in downtown. So, what the EPA wants to do is hydraulically dredge these materials and they’ll pump them around to the storage facility,” he explains.

Shafer says the sediment coming in would be super wet. “The water will rise to the top, siphoned off placed through a specifically water treatment facility and then the clean water discharged back to the lake,” he says.

Rebecca Fedak with the Wisconsin DNR says planning the 42-acre facility requires local, state and federal partnerships.

“The EPA and DNR are working through what could or couldn’t be stored here and what would have to be disposed of in a certified landfill, depending on the level of contamination,” she says.

Public feedback is critical, and not just at Tuesday’s virtually public meeting.

“There are very permits that need to be put in and one is a low-hazard exemption permit and for that there is a public hearing on Thursday the 20th for people to provide input; and there will also be future meetings that are happening through construction phases of the project,” says Fedak.

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Susan Bence
(Left to right) Rebecca Fedak with the Wisconsin DNR, Cheryl Nenn with Milwaukee Riverkeeper and Kevin Shafter with MMSD represent three of over 20 local, state and federal organizations working to clean up the Milwaukee estuary .

Cheryl Nenn with Milwaukee Riverkeeper has been advocating for the estuary for 18 years and understands every wonky element of the process. She also knows for lots of people a “low-hazard exemption” may seem a string of unintelligible words.

Bottom line, Nenn urges people to share their ideas and concerns.

“This is a generational opportunity to clean up the rivers and so I think’s its critically important for people to come and learn what’s happening," she says. "It’s a project that’s going to take years. We hope five years or so to do this work as well as some other additional work that we’re planning to do clean up beaches, and to add more habitat for fish and wildlife in this very kind of urban environment."

Nenn says she gets that it’s hard to get excited about dredging mountains of contaminated muck from Milwaukee’s rivers, but says the end goal is worth it.

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