Jeramey Jannene
Eyes on Milwaukee

Harbor Commission Approves Massive Cleanup Facility

New 42-acre, MMSD facility on lake could store 1.9 million cubic yards of sediment

By - Aug 18th, 2022 11:17 am
DMMF site map. Image from DNR report.

DMMF site map. Image from DNR report.

A proposal to make Milwaukee waterways substantially cleaner involves shrinking Lake Michigan by 42 acres.

The Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District is leading the construction of a new facility that would stick out into the lake near the southern end of the Hoan Bridge. Known as the Dredged Material Management Facility (DMMF), it would be capable of storing 1.9 million cubic yards of sediment.

It’s unlikely one would ever notice the 14.3-million-acre lake got any smaller, but the DMMF is being built so that you will notice long-term that the waterways around Milwaukee are cleaner.

The facility is to store sediment removed from the area’s waterways as part of a federally-backed effort to remove the “Area of Concern” (AOC) designation that was first given to the area in 1987 because of historical environmental contamination.

The cleanup effort, now known as the Waterway Restoration Partnership, was first announced in January 2020 and is expected to cost hundreds of millions of dollars. A February press release from MMSD says the project partners hope to leverage $260 million in federal resources as part of the larger project. It’s expected the cleanup will take six years to complete and involve the removal of metals, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and other pollutants.

The Board of Harbor Commissioners took its first formal votes on the multi-agency project last week Thursday.

“We do feel that we are at a precipice of construction and securing those federal dollars,” said port director Adam Tindall-Schlicht to the board. Project officials have previously described the facility as a bathtub formed by a sizable bulk barrier (or concrete wall).

The City of Milwaukee, through the Harbor Commission, will eventually own the facility, similar to a federally-funded facility to the south. That earlier facility, the 50-acre Confined Disposal Facility (CDF) from 1975, is partially leased to the Lake Express as a ferry terminal and another portion houses South Shore Cruise Dock. The northernmost portion of the CDF, approximately 30 acres in size, is not completely full and will be used at the start of the AOC cleanup in 2023 for a We Energies contamination cleanup of the Milwaukee River near the Historic Third Ward.

On Thursday the commission unanimously approved two things: allowing MMSD to use the city’s submerged land grant authority from the state to build the facility and a financial contribution to the DMMF’s further design and engineering.

Approximately $100,000 would go towards the final design and permitting costs for the facility. Tindall-Schlicht said the amount is “5% to 10% of the design costs.” Ramboll, an engineering consultancy, is leading the final design. Tindall-Schlicht said We Energies, which led the initial design, is now largely out of the process.

Under a best-case scenario, construction would start in late 2023 and be completed by 2025. The cleanup-related sediment would all be deposited by 2027 and settle over 15 years. The earliest a portion of the facility could be capped and turned over to a new use would be in 25 years.

“Much more ahead with the [cleanup]. It’s going to be a generational project,” said Tindall-Schlicht.

“Well we spent 150 years messing it up,” said commissioner Ron San Felippo to laughter.

The construction of a storage facility is seen as a cost-effective strategy by the project partners. It avoids the need to first process and dry the sediment, eliminates tens of thousands of truck trips to haul the sediment and avoids the tipping fees associated with disposing of the material.

But paradoxically, before it’s even built it’s already full on paper. Of the 1.9 million cubic yard capacity, 1.4 million is dedicated to the Environmental Protection Agency cleanup, with MMSD (300,000) and the port (200,000) getting the additional capacity for planned projects decades into the future.

An unplanned project could arrive in 2027 and make matters tighter.

A potential change to the designated low-water level of the Great Lakes could trigger the need for more dredging in the shipping canals, and Tindall-Schlicht said the port is already worried about the capacity (and the potential cost of such a change). That led to commissioner Craig Mastantuono asking if the unbuilt facility could be bigger.

Port Milwaukee chief engineer Brian Kasprzyk said expanding the facility’s footprint wasn’t a viable option. “We are pretty much at the maximum size we can fit in there,” he told the board. The reason is the location. The shipping lanes in the port skirt the edge of the planned facility, which would stick out about as far as the nearby piers.

The DMMF was estimated to cost $96 million when the Wisconsin State Legislature approved a proposal to allow MMSD to temporarily exceed its borrowing cap to fund the project. But project documents now estimate the cost could reach $150 million. MMSD will pay for a portion of the project using an EPA loan fund.

What did Milwaukee do with dredged material before building storage facilities? Took it out into the lake and dumped it into deep areas.

The Milwaukee Estuary Area of Concern encompasses the Inner Harbor and Milwaukee, Menomonee and Kinnickinnic rivers. The area is roughly bounded by E. North Ave. to the north, W. Cleveland Ave. to the south, Lake Michigan to the east and N. 35th St. to the west. An expanded area of concern includes the Milwaukee River to Cedarburg, the Little Menomonee River almost to the Mequon border, and the Kinnickinnic River to Greenfield.

There are five Areas of Concern in Wisconsin and 43 designated Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes, including 17 in Canada and seven shared by the US and Canada.

Future uses of the DMMF site will need to comply with the Public Trust Doctrine.

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