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U.S. EPA REGION 5
HOUGHTON COUNTY
HOUGHTON COUNTY

Congressional District # 01

TORCH LAKE

EPA ID# MID980901946
Last Updated: August, 2013

Site Description

The Torch Lake site is located on the Keweenaw Peninsula in Houghton County, Michigan. Copper mining activities in the area from the 1890s until 1969 produced mill tailings (called stamp sands) that contaminated the lake sediments and shoreline.

The Torch Lake Superfund site is comprised of several areas ranging in size from approximately 10 acres to over 200 acres in size. The areas are located around the Keweenaw Peninsula, Upper Peninsula, Michigan. The area is mostly forested with numerous lakes.  There is some industry in the area, but the primary business and commerce in the area today centers around recreation and tourism.   

About 200 million tons of copper mill stamp sands were dumped into Torch Lake itself, filling about 20 percent of the lake's volume. The contaminated sediments are believed to be 70 feet thick in some areas, and surface sediments contain up to 2,000 parts per million (ppm) of copper. The stamp sands deposited in Torch Lake and on the shoreline were dredged up during the early part of the 1900s and were processed with flotation chemicals to reclaim copper. The stamp sands and much of the flotation chemicals were returned to the lake and the shoreline. Torch Lake has also received mine pumpage, leaching chemicals, explosive residues, and by-products. In 1972, an estimated 27,000 gallons of cupric ammonium carbonate were released into the lake from storage vats. Barrels have been found at several sites along the shoreline of the lake.

The only active industry on the Torch Lake shoreline is the Peninsula Copper Company, which reclaims copper oxide from scrap electronic circuit boards. During the early 1980s, the company dumped processing water, containing 2,400 times the local sewage authority's allowable limits for copper and 100 times the limit for ammonia, into the Tamarack lagoon system.

Approximately 4,000 people live within one mile of the lake.

Site Responsibility

This site is being addressed through federal Fund-lead actions with the State of MI conducting Operation and Maintanence activities.

 

Threats and Contaminants

The site's primary threat is its impact on the ecosystem.  The most significant ecological impact is the severe degradation of the benthic (bottom dwelling) organisms in Torch Lake and other area water bodies, as a result of the metal loadings from the mine wastes.

The Michigan Department of Public Health issued a fish consumption advisory for Torch Lake due to the presence of PCBs and mercury in fish tissue; but there is no information indicateing that this fish contamination is specifically related to the Torch Lake Superfund site.  

Cleanup Progress

The United States Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) began investigation activities in 1988 at Torch Lake, which included a survey to locate drums buried in the tailings piles on the western shore and at the bottom of Torch Lake. Approximately 20 drums were located on the surface, and samples were taken to determine if the drums contained any toxic materials. In 1990, twelve additional drum locations were excavated and sampled. As a result of the testing, U.S. EPA removed the contaminated drums from the lake as well as contaminated soil beneath the drums. In 1990, U.S. EPA completed field work, involving the characterization of shoreline tailings and slag piles. In 1992, U.S. EPA selected a remedy which called for about 800 acres of these piles to be covered with soil and vegetation and long-term monitoring of Torch Lake. Design of this remedy began in the fall of 1992 and was completed in September 1998.  Also in 1992, U.S. EPA completed sampling surface water, sediment, and groundwater underlying all stamp sand piles. Based on the sampling results, in early 1994, U.S. EPA selected a "No Action" remedy for the sediments, groundwater and surface waters.  This "No Action" remedy took into consideration and relied upon the effects of the previously selected remedy to: (1) cover the slag piles and tailings and reduce stampsand loading to the surface water bodies; (2) the natural sedimentation and detoxification that would occur in the surface water bodies; and (3) institutional controls administered at the county and state level to control potential future exposure to site-affected groundwater. 

Construction of the soil and vegetative cap was initiated in September 1998.  Long-term monitoring of Torch Lake was initiated in 1999.  A baseline study was completed in August 2001.  Results of the  study are included in the Baseline Study Report, dated August 2001.

By the fall of 2005, 800 acres of stamp sands and slag had been remediated. This included stamp sands along the western shore of Torch Lake, Dollar Bay, Point Mills, Calumet Lake, Boston Pond, North Entry, Scales Creek, Isle Royale Sands and Michigan Smelter. 

A partial National Priorities List (NPL) delisting of the Lake Linden portion of the site and all of operable unit 2 (sediments, surface water, and groundwater) was finalized in April 2002. The partial delisting of the Hubbell/Tamarack City portion of the site was finalized in 2004.

The first five-year review was completed on March 4, 2003.  On September 30, 2005, U.S. EPA determined construction was complete at the site.  The remedy (6 inches of clean cover with plants to stabilize the cover) was completed at each parcel identified in the 1992 ROD for remedy implemention .  In 2008 the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), [now the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Environment (MDNRE)] took over operation and maintenance responsibilities for the implemented remedy. They will continue to monitor the operation and function of the remedy to make sure that it performs as it was designed. 

Additional work on the site includes a pilot project on Gull Island, located in the middle of Torch Lake. In the spring of 2003, U.S. EPA, the Natural Resource Conservation Service (NRCS) and MDEQ planted approximately 15,000 fast growing plants on the island to determine if they would grow without the addition of clean soil cover.  This project has been monitored closely by U.S. EPA, and in 2004 an additional 20,000 plants were planted.  Field Inspections during the summer of 2007 showed a lack of growth for some of the most recent plantings, however, the areas where trees and shrubs were planted are successfully established.

In 2007, U.S. EPA's Removal Program completed the Torch Lake Area Assessment, which consisted of a wide-ranging sampling effort of mining impacts in the Keweenaw Peninsula.  A report summarizing the sampling effort was finalized in 2007, and the conclusions of the report are being considered by U.S. EPA and MDEQ.  Torch Lake site-related matters associated with the Area Assessment have been addressed.  The Removal Program identified an area in Lake Linden with elevated levels of arsenic and lead in soils.  In August 2007, approximately 1,010 cubic yards of contaminated soils were excavated from this area by Removal contractors.  In 2008, U.S. EPA's Removal Program also began asbestos abatement activities at Quincy Smelter.

A second five year review was completed in March 2008.  This Five Year Review identified the need to continue to: implement institutional controls at certain properties; investigate residential wells in the site area; assess potential contamination at Lake Linden and Mason Sands;  and complete removal actions and install vegetative cover at Quincy Smelter. 

Lake Linden contamination was adequately addressed by the 2007 Removal Action.  A 2008 Removal Action addressed a small amount of soil contamination and abandoned drums at Mason Sands.  The residential wells were sampled in 2010; and found to have no contamination above health-based limits.  A 2008 Removal Action at Quincy Smelter addressed immediate threats.  EPA continues to pursue institutional controls for all Torch Lake property parcels.

A ROD amendment was signed on July 31, 2009, selecting a vegetative cover for the stampsands on the Quincy Smelter portion of the site.  The 1992 ROD selected no action for the Quincy Smelter area because there were plans to develop the area as a national historic park.  A national historic park was not developed by 2009 and no IC's were implemented for that area. The U.S. EPA determined that additional remedial action at Qunicy Smelter was necessary.  The ROD amendment requires the implementation of the same vegetative cover at Quincy Smelter as the rest of the site.  

The Quincy Smelter vegetative cover remedial design was completed in September 2010.  The construction of the Remedial Action for Quincy Smelter was completed in September 2011.  After one year of  EPA-led cover maintenance, the State of Michigan will be responsible for the operation and maintenance of the cover. 

In December 2012, Mason Sands tailings, Isle-Royale tailings, and Michigan Smelter tailings portions of the Torch Lake site have been delisted.  The Calumet Lake and Quincy Smelter portions of the Torch Lake Site are currently up for delisting. The delisting package will be placed in the Federal Register by in August.  The comment period will begin at that time and will last 30 days.  If EPA does not recieve any adverse comments, the delisting will be final 30 days later (October 2013).   

The third Five Year Review (FYR) was completed in March 2013. The site is protective in the short-term. However, in otder to protective in the long-term all of the Torch Lake Superfund Parcels need to have the required property restrictions in place.

 

Community Involvement

U.S. EPA initiated a unique outreach and monitoring program for this site. In 2003, U.S. EPA trained teachers from four local high schools, who in turn, trained their students to do bird and plant diversity and soil fertility studies. An additional high school was added in 2004. The project was a success and continued through 2006.

On August 17, 2006 U.S. EPA celebrated the construction completion milestone with a ceremony in Lake Linden and by placing commemorative signs at four of the parcels. The ceremony was well attended and the majority of local citizens have been satisfied with the implementation of the remedy.

In September 2011, EPA  and Michigan Tech University oversaw the  local Houghton County high school students monitor the vegetative covers for percent coverage, soil fertility, root depth, etc.  The qualitative data they collected will be reported on in the next FYR. 

A public meeting was held on August 23, 2012 to present the NPL delisting process and the parcels proposed for delisting in 2012.  A few articles were published  in the lcoal news paper before and after the public meeting to help get the information out to the public

Congressional Interest

Senator Levin's office has been involved in advocating the clean-up of Quincy Smelter, and it's use for historical interpretation.

Property Reuse

The Hubbell/Tamarck City parcel of the site was deleted from the NPL in 2004.  The landowners of this parcel are currently developing the property for residential use.

The Village of Lake Linden has developed portions of the area as a campground and there is an adjacent public beach area.

 

Contacts

Remedial Project Manager, U.S. EPA
nabil fayoumi (fayoumi.nabil@epa.gov)
(312) 886-6840

 

Site Profile Information

This profile provides you with information on EPA's cleanup progress at this Superfund site.

 


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