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Issues of the Environment: Making the case for preserving Ypsilanti's Peninsular Paper Dam

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Tricia Mora
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Tricia Mora

Overview

  • The Friends of Peninsular Park, a volunteer community organization dedicated to promoting, maintaining, and sharing information about Peninsular Park and Dam, believes that the removal of the dam could cause ecological harm in the environment near the dam and potentially downstream due to the migration of contaminated sediments, including into Ford Lake. 
  • In 2019, an impoundment in the Kalamazoo River was drained without notice, and the resulting ecological damage and contamination of the river and surrounding areas was extensive. PCB’s (highly toxic chemical waste from manufacturing) trapped in the river sediment from a former paper mill were released into the river during the event adding time and expense to an ongoing superfund remediation of the area spanning 30 years. Cleanup is ongoing and requires the removal of nearly 400,000 cubic yards of contaminated sentiment, with added costs estimated at $10 million. The Friends of Peninsular Park is concerned that the current plan to remove the Peninsular Dam may lead to unintended environmental consequences and costs, and that it ought to be postponed for further evaluation. 
  • The Friends of Peninsular Park group has reviewed the results of three sedimentation studies that were done to assess the levels of environmental contaminants in the dam impoundment sediment. The group sees reason to be concerned that the focus by the HRWC on the results of the most recent study by Limnotech is overlooking more concerning findings from previous assessments. Tricia Mora, board member The Friends of the Peninsular Park, points out that contaminants that are harmful for aquatic life, not just exceeding human tolerances, were detected in 36 or the 49 samples across three studies, which differs significantly from the findings when the Limnotech study is used in isolation. 
  • The group also sees a need to reevaluate the alternative of returning the dam to hydroelectric generation. 
  • A secondary concern comes from a possible disconnect between the Limnotech findings and the proposed plan for a more passive management of the dam sediments. The group sites these paragraphs from the recent Limnotech study and the Huron River Watershed Council’s publications to support their concerns:
    “The advantage of passive restoration is the low cost, as it requires little work in the impoundment to control sediment or develop more natural channel characteristics. Low cost comes at the expense of time, as the river will evolve through a process of erosion and migration that may take decades following dam removal. It can also have a negative short-term impact on downstream reaches if large volumes of sediment, including any mobilized contaminated materials, are delivered to reaches downstream of the dam... Because of the downstream impoundment [Ford Lake], full passive sediment management is not likely a viable option for the Peninsular Paper Dam. “ 

About Tricia Mora

Tricia Mora is a long-time resident of Washtenaw County and has been living in Ypsilanti and Ypsilanti Township for the past several years. She's a former co-owner of Tree Town Toys in Ann Arbor and has two children who grew up in this community. She's a mechanical engineer for a Tier 1 supplier in the auto industry and, thus, took an immediate interest in the practical underpinnings of the question of the Pen Dam removal project. She's also a regular kayaker and birdwatcher on the Pen Dam Pond and a board member of The Friends of Peninsular Park, a volunteer community organization dedicated to promoting, maintaining and sharing information about Peninsular Park and Dam.

Transcription

David Fair: This is 89 one WEMU, and welcome to another Peninsular Paper Dam edition of Issues of the Environment. I'm David Fair, and the historic dam in the portion of the Huron River passing through Ypsilanti has been slated for removal. It's been a slow process, but in the May 18th Issues of the Environment show, we discussed some progress and next steps with the Huron River Watershed Council. The council has been among those pushing for dam removal and returning that portion of the river to natural flow. Not everyone agrees that that's the wisest decision for the environment or the people of Ypsilanti. That includes the group the Friends of Peninsular Park. Our guest this morning is Tricia Mora. Tricia is a board member of this volunteer community organization and brings expertise to the table from her professional work as a mechanical engineer for a Tier one supplier in the auto industry. Thank you for helping us look at the other side of the story today, Tricia.

Tricia Mora: Oh, thanks for having me, David.

David Fair: In 2019, Ypsilanti City Council voted to remove the dam and dedicated $500,000 towards deconstruction. That after decades of discussion and consideration. But, with that vote, it did seem as though it were a foregone conclusion that one day the dam would be removed. At what point along the way, Tricia, did the Friends of Peninsular Park form with a differing opinion?

Tricia Mora: Friends of Peninsular Park has existed for many years. I just recently joined, but the goal has been to preserve the park, the historical value, which also includes the dam.

David Fair: I've seen estimates that put the cost of dam removal at about $2.7 million, but that's a figure that failed to include engineering costs, permitting cost, the cost of mitigation of the sediment, which does contain some toxic materials. It doesn't include the cost of railroad bridge scouring mitigation, restoration of the uncovered land, and cost of bank stabilization. So, one would assume that with all the supply chain issues we're facing, the rising labor and consumer costs, as well as ongoing and increasing inflation, the price is going up, is cost among your concerns?

Tricia Mora: Absolutely. Cost should be among everyone's concerns. Of course, I want to focus on the ecology aspect today, but cost is vital. The last thing we want is the city to go down a road where the costs become much larger than planned, and they're on the hook. We all remember the Water Street situation, and, you know, we want to avoid at all costs going down the same type of road.

David Fair: Well, let's go back for a moment, well before Ypsilanti City Council's 2019 vote for dam removal. All the way back in 1995, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources said that it considered removing the Penn Dam a priority for improving river health, fish habitat, and recreation. Let's take a little bit a look at the recreation part of that statement. Tricia, you're a kayaker and a bird watcher and you spent a good deal of time at Penn Dam Pond that was created by the dam. It's been estimated that removal of the dam would result in about two additional acres of parkland. So, how do you envision recreational opportunities potentially being harmed with the removal of the dam?

Tricia Mora: Well, the recreational opportunities will be different than they currently are. Right now, you have still water, which is easy to enter and a safer for kayakers and boaters. The recreation opportunities would change. I mean, you look upstream and look at what Ann Arbor has at Argo Dam, and that's, you know, thriving recreation when the park is maintained. And we envision we could have something like that at Penn Dam Park.

David Fair: 89 one WEMU's issues of the Environment continues with Tricia Mora, a board member of the Friends of Peninsular Park. And, Tricia, you mentioned you wanted to focus on environment and ecology, so let's head in that direction. Back in April, there was a town hall in Ypsilanti providing updates to the community about the ongoing analysis of dam removal. LimnoTech is the firm that was hired to take samples of sediment materials trapped in the dam and intended to test for environmental contaminants. According to the Huron River Watershed Council, the results to this point are best case scenario in support of dam removal. Why do you disagree?

Tricia Mora: Well, I believe that some of the risks that were said have not been given the focus that they deserve. The current restoration plan does not include removing the sediment. And their own environmental consulting firm recommended removing sediment to eliminate risks with a downstream impoundment, including Ford Lake, and to mitigate risks to the ecology and sediment, as you know naturally occurs in rivers and tends to collect any place that the water flow stops or slows down, which this could be like river deltas, for example. And also, it happens behind dams. The concern with the sediment is that it will bury the habitat that passed the dam, including the endangered mussels, which is why the law requires you to remove them, to put them out of harm's way. We have a thriving walleye population in the river, and this population enjoys that four-mile stretch of river between Penn Dam and Ford Lake. And if you bury that in sediment, that will be detrimental to the walleye population because it buries their spawning area, as well as food sources. We believe that it is putting the aquatic life downstream from the dam at risk, including Ford Lake.

David Fair: And as we consider the potential impacts and harm to the water to the habitat there, do you also have similar concerns when it comes to human health?

Tricia Mora: Absolutely. With over 200,000 cubic yards of sediment, you will have large collections of deep mud. And take a look at what happened to the Kalamazoo River when over 100,000 cubic yards of sediment was released into the river. They have deep mud formations, and, last September, there was a gentleman walking along the river that became trapped and had to be rescued. And, you know, just picture this at Frog Island or, you know, our valuable parks. I mean, this is something that's a real risk that we need to consider.

David Fair: Once again, you're listening to 89 one WEMU, and we're talking with Friends of Peninsular Park board member Tricia Mora on Issues of the Environment. And in looking at it from a different perspective, you believe, despite its current state, that Peninsular Paper Dam could potentially be rehabilitated and become another source of hydroelectric power? Am I correct?

Tricia Mora: Yes, that's correct. And, actually, the repair of the dam--the cost of it--is about $600,000. And this is really not just repair, but it's maintenance that should have been done over the past few decades since the city was gifted the dam. So, there are grants available to repair the dam, and it's possible that that could happen without costing the city anything. And to have hydroelectric on top of that would be something great for our community. We're looking at about 400 homes that could be powered, 24-7 with green energy. And, to put that in perspective, that's over half or the College Heights neighborhood. All those homes could have green energy.

David Fair: So, you talked about $600,000 for repair and maintenance that should have been done. But again, that was assessed a little while ago, and that is most certainly gone up at this point. Has there also been cost analysis as to annual operational maintenance and insurance costs?

Tricia Mora: Actually, there has been. We have a gentleman in our Penn Dam Friends group that has been looking at the costs, and he can certainly share many of these details. I don't have all of them on hand.

David Fair: So, as we consider what is happening now and what the short-term future holds, the process of getting to dam removal is in phase two of three phases. The Huron River Watershed Council says it expects that 2024 will be the year we get to actual removal. In your opinion, is there time and is there enough community will that you believe the project can be stopped?

Tricia Mora: Well, I believe that, at a minimum, we should reassess the whole situation. I mean, we've had three years of studies, and we still don't understand the scope of the project, let alone the cost. And this puts the city at huge risk. And the Watershed Council person mentioned in her interview that the city is only on the hook for $500,000. Well, I don't know how that's possible to state when we don't even know the real cost. So, I think, at minimum, we need to step back. We need to look at what our goals are. What are we actually gaining? A mile and a quarter of exchanging a pond ecosystem for a river ecosystem. You know, that barely tips the needle and a river that's 133 miles long and already has 96 dams in the system. So, you know, you look at the cost of this, and their latest estimate is $2.7 million is getting closer to $10 million. And we don't even understand the full cost yet. So, we certainly need to step back and take a look. Is this really what we want to do? Do we need to consider alternatives? We need to have a responsible, informed decision.

David Fair: So, as you look forward and push for another assessment and more assessment, what will be your next steps?

Tricia Mora: Our next step really is getting the word out--to have more awareness. Very little focus has been put on the issue of the settlements and the dangers that they impose, as well as with the contaminants. I mean, out of 49 flights that were checked, nine of them had levels that were above the human level for toxins, and a total of 36 were above the toxin levels for the ecology. And we're talking about leaving this material in the river. And this this just was not a good plan. And our next step is to get the word out--to get more awareness on this.

David Fair: Well, I thank you for the time in the perspective today, Tricia, and there will be more conversations to come as we move forward.

Tricia Mora: Oh, perfect. I look forward to it. Thank you.

David Fair: That is Tricia Mora, a board member of the Friends of Peninsular Park, a group opposing removal of the historic Peninsular Paper Dam from the Huron River. For more information and resources regarding today's topic, visit our website at WEMU dot org. Issues of the Environment is produced in partnership with the Office of the Washtenaw County Water Resources Commissioner. And you hear it every Wednesday. I'm David Fair, and this is your community NPR station, 89 one WEMU FM and WEMU HD one Ypsilanti.

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Nearly three-quarters of David Fair’s 20+ years in radio has been at WEMU. Since 1994, he has been on the air at 5am each weekday on 89.1 FM as the local host of NPR’s Morning Edition. Over the years, Fair has had the opportunity to interview nationally and internationally known politicians, activists and celebrities. But he feels the most important features and interviews have been with those who live and work here at home. He believes his professional passions and desires fit perfectly into WEMU’s commitment to serving a local audience.
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