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Portion of Kalamazoo River reopens after dam removal and chemical cleanup

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There are new outdoor recreation opportunities in Otsego now that part of the Kalamazoo River has reopened.

State and federal agencies closed access to the river between Plainwell and Otsego to remove a dam and clean chemicals illegally dumped by a paper mill in the area. Thursday, dozens joined elected officials to kick off the newly renovated space.

“The best thing is seeing people have such a terrific time,” Lois Heuchert, proprietor of Plainwell Kayak Company, said.

Heuchert said the services she offers at her kayak business will expand, now that the about four miles of the Kalamazoo River have been cleaned and reopened.

“This will probably be a two-hour trip, which fits nicely with our one and our three-hour options. So, I feel like we have it all here for the folks of southwest Michigan,” Heuchert said. “Kalamazoo River is such a beautiful resource that we have and most people haven’t had the opportunity to get on the river and experience it. There’s a long history with pollution.”

Mark Mills, with the Department of Natural Resources’ wildlife division, was the field operations manager for the multimillion-dollar river renovation. He said several people were asking about the river and the it’s restoration during the two-year project.

“Unfortunately, we had to keep the sight closed to make sure that people were safe. There were some hazardous conditions out here,”Mills said. “All the restoration that’s been done—it’s better for the wildlife, it’s better for the environment, it’s better for the health of the river, it’s better for the health of the people.”

Mills said the DNR partnered with the Environmental Protection Agency, plus several other agencies and elected officials to restore the Kalamazoo River to its natural state. The project began by taking down a dam that was built in the early 1900s. He explained another part of the renovation included removing sediment that was contaminated by polychlorinated biphenyl, known as PCB’s.

“They were contained in a carbonless copy paper that was recycled at the paper mills up stream. That was a byproduct, so they kept the fiber from the paper, and dumped the rest in the river, like a septic system and those PCBs accumulated behind the dams and sediment in the river,” Mills said. “In order to remove dams, we had to do a cleanup and get the concentrations of waste out of there.”

Mills expressed his relief now that this cleanup portion of the Kalamazoo River is complete.

“The coordination to do a project like this is astonishing. Between federal government, state government, local agencies, local communities, The paper companies, the folks contacted to work for the paper companies, it could be overwhelming. This group held together. Had open lines of communication to get the job done,” Mills said.

Fred Upton, U.S. Representative for Michigan’s 6th Congressional District, attended the river’s reopening. After telling the crowd he plans to visit the river in the future, he mentioned the new recreational opportunities could help bring tourism dollars to west Michigan.

“This is what we want. Clean rivers help the economic vitality of you name the community,” Rep. Upton said.

Mills also mentioned there is more work to be done to help restore the river to its natural state.

“We’ve got more dams to remove, more contamination to remove and so the project’s just going to keep rolling forward as we obtain funding and the EPA’s support to keep these types of projects coming,” Mills said. “We have a fish advisory where folks aren’t supposed to eat the fish this stretch of river and that’s because of the PCB’s in the river. So, by doing these projects, getting the PCBs out reduces the exposure to the fish, which reduces the exposure to humans.”

Mills said the DNR has plans to remove two more dams near Otsego and Allegan within the next decade. He said crews are currently working on design plans for the removal.

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