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We sit at the precipice of implementing one of the last grand efforts to improve our natural environment in the Milwaukee region. While there will always be some work needed, this grand effort will allow this region’s generation to leave our natural environment better than we found it. This grand effort is called the Milwaukee River Estuary Area of Concern (AOC). The work in the AOC will not only improve the natural environment but will also jumpstart the economy and protect our drinking water supply.
The Milwaukee River Estuary was designated by the United States Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA) as an AOC in the 1980s. An AOC is a location that has experienced significant environmental degradation so that the public can’t use it in a safe or beneficial way.
For generations, Milwaukee was known as the ‘machine shop of the world’. Those machine shops, tanneries, breweries, and manufacturing plants simply dumped their industrial waste into the nearest river. The legacy chemicals found deep in the river sediments are still there – PCBs, mercury, coal tar, and heavy metals leading a long list of pollutants.
The good news is that today our rivers are much cleaner thanks to many initiatives over the years such as the building of the deep tunnel system, dam removal projects, and habitat restoration efforts. More than ever, we see an increase in kayaks, recreational boats, and people fishing and enjoying our rivers and the lakefront. This investment has improved our quality of life and delivered a huge economic boost to the region and the state. This investment has also helped protect Lake Michigan, the source of drinking water for more than a million Wisconsinites.
The US EPA estimates that there are approximately 1.4 million cubic yards of sediment that needs to be removed from the waterways (Milwaukee, Menomonee, and Kinnickinnic Rivers and the harbor) to meet public health, environmental, and navigational needs. The Port Milwaukee will be using some additional storage in the Dredged Material Management Facility (DMMF) for navigational dredging and the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District will have additional storage for our flood management projects. In total, approximately 1.9 million cubic yards of storage will be available in the DMMF.
The US EPA is proposing to spend roughly $270 million to dredge and pump the contaminated river sediment through a pipeline for the sediments to be stored in the DMMF. This vacuum-type dredging operation will eliminate the need for trucks to haul away the sediments reducing the impacts to residents, traffic concerns, greenhouse gas emissions, and will save approximately one million gallons of diesel fuel.
When completed, the DMMF project will create 42-acres of new land on the shore of Lake Michigan along with removing the risk associated with the contaminated sediments in our rivers.
The stars are aligned for this project to move forward now. Many partners have worked collaboratively over the past decades to get us to this point. Now we need your help. A virtual public information meeting will be held on May 18th, 2021 at 5:30 pm, and we need to hear any concerns or questions you might have at this meeting.
Kevin L. Shafer, P.E.
Executive Director - Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District
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