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Monitoring Torch Lake: Field Trips and Lab Workshops

Original EPA Press Release 9/1/04


Grant award helps students monitor Upper Peninsula Superfund Site
Press Release from EPA

CHICAGO (September 1, 2004) -- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5 has awarded a $32,350 grant to Michigan Technological University in Houghton, Mich., to continue support of a unique Superfund program involving five Upper Peninsula high schools.

Students from Calumet, Chassell, Dollar Bay, Hancock and Lake Linden-Hubbell high schools are performing long-term monitoring of bird and plant diversity and soil fertility on the Torch Lake Superfund site in the UP's Keewenaw Peninsula. Coordinated by MTU's Western Upper Peninsula Center for Science, Math and Environmental Education, the students' monitoring assists EPA's efforts in charting the progress of the vegetation cap and habitat reconstruction done under the Agency's Superfund program. The monitoring is believed to be the first time EPA has used students to collect the follow-up scientific data required after a Superfund cleanup is completed.

"EPA is pleased to be helping the scientific education of these high school students," said Acting Regional Administrator Bharat Mathur. "Hopefully some of the young people will consider careers in environmental science."

Funding for the initial year of the students' work was provided locally, but EPA is now paying for the remaining term of the agreement. Grant funds will be used for personnel costs as well as supplies needed for the monitoring. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also coordinating with EPA and MTU on the project.

The Torch Lake site was placed on the National Priorities List of Superfund sites in 1986 due strictly to ecological and environmental concerns. In most cases, a human health threat must also be shown before a site is placed on the NPL. More than 200 million tons of copper waste (stamp sands and slag) from 70 years of mining have been dumped in Torch Lake. As a result, erosion was rampant, vegetation scarce, and the aquatic ecosystem severely damaged. Under EPA's cleanup plan, several inches of sandy loam were laid over polluted sections and then seeded. Since 1999, about 700 acres at 11 Houghton County sites have been cleaned up, with another 100 acres to complete.

During 2002, the first year of monitoring, plant regrowth and repopulation by birds and small animals were documented by scientific experts. In early 2003, EPA began training area high school teachers who now teach their students to do the monitoring as part of the class curriculum. The students take soil samples, identify and count birds, and lay out grids on the ground to survey plant growth. The collected data is then analyzed by EPA to determine if the cleanup is working. The Agency has been pleased with the results so far. Vegetation is once again growing on the formerly barren stamp sands, and birds and small mammals are moving back to the area.

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