Anglers in a recent fishing derby on Michigan’s Pine River got news far better than pulling in the largest fish.
The Environmental Protection Agency recently reported that the fish they sought are much cleaner of DDT than when the competition began 15 years ago. The concentration of the now banned pesticide in fish near the site of the Velsicol chemical manufacturing plant dropped by as much as 98 percent after a multi-million dollar cleanup of polluted river sediment from 2000 to 2006, the EPA said.
Tempering the good news is that the fish were so contaminated then that even after the dramatic drop the Michigan Department of Community Health still advises not to eat fish downriver of the site. The contest is strictly catch and release.
Adam Musselman with Sheran Sholtz, wife of the late Joe Sholtz who founded the derby more than 15 years ago. Musselman helped organize this year's event and gather prizes donated by Gratiot County merchants. Image: John Evans of the Gratiot County Herald
Adam Musselman with Sheran Sholtz, wife of the late Joe Sholtz who founded the derby more than 15 years ago. Musselman helped organize this year’s event and gather prizes donated by Gratiot County merchants. Image: John Evans of the Gratiot County Herald
Still, that’s progress for the mid-Michigan community of St. Louis. The small town has been battling the legacy of contamination left by the Velsicol factory for decades. In 1982 Velsicol entered a legal agreement with state and federal authorities that, among other cleanup actions, included building a slurry wall around the former plant site and capping it with clay.
From 1998 to 2006 a variety of cleanup actions were taken at a cost of almost $100 million, according to EPA. There have been setbacks. In 2006, studies showed that the slurry wall failed to keep contamination out of the river. In 2012 authorities began the cleanup of residential properties associated with the contamination.
Recently health researchers from Emory University took blood and tissue samples of former Velsicol workers and local residents as part of a longterm study of the health effects from exposure to a variety of chemicals produced there. This summer the EPA is continuing with the cleanup of chemical hot spots that have been identified throughout the town.
“Our hope is that someday soon the fish will be clean enough to eat,” said Jane Keon, a member of an EPA Community Advisory Group that gives advice on the cleanup. When the group formed in 1998, it set goals of improving the reputation of the river and showing state and federal authorities that it was serious about having a river that is non-toxic to people and wildlife.
That prompted lifelong resident Joe Scholtz to launch an annual fishing derby that coincides with Michigan’s license-free fishing day, Keon said. Local merchants donate bicycles, fishing gear and other prizes for children who participate. The citizens group provides hot dogs.
The event is attended by state and federal officials, candidates for elective office, local celebrities and sportsmen advertising for companies selling fishing boats and other gear, Keon said.
About 230 people participated this year.
Joe Scholtz describes the derby in 2007:
Scholtz, who later became mayor of the town, died in 2011. The event is now named after him.
From 2000 to 2006, workers removed more than 600,000 cubic yards of contaminated mud from a river impoundment between the factory site and a dam downriver from it, the EPA said. State and federal authorities have pumped and treated more than 2.7 million gallons of contaminated water to protect the river and are still cleaning up contaminated groundwater .
EPA is sampling other parts of the river to see if further cleanup is warranted.
The fish analyzed for contaminants were smallmouth bass and carp. The bass are selected because they are popular game fish and top-level predators, the EPA said. The carp are bottom feeders with lots of contact with the muck on the river bottom.