GAY, Mich. (WJMN) – UPDATE: The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) announced the first steps it will take in using $10 million from the Michigan state budget to stop stamp sand in the Copper Country from polluting Lake Superior. The $10 million allocation will be used to begin construction of a 2,000-foot jetty into Lake Superior to prevent the sands from further moving across the lake’s bottom.

EGLE released the following concept of the Buffalo Reef jetty:

The stamp sands are pulverized rock left over from copper ore processing in the area, and pose a threat to the spawning grounds of whitefish and lake trout in Lake Superior. The jetty will serve as EGLE’s base of operations to further stop and work to undo the spread of the sands.

A further “long-term adaptive management plan” is expected to be announced by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers later this month, as well as a public comment period and summary of the state’s response so far from EGLE.

PREVIOUS: The plan to keep stamp sands from further impacting Buffalo Reef and Grand Traverse Harbor now has a more clear direction. During a meeting this week from the Buffalo Reef Task Force, a final plan was agreed on, which would mean building a landfill inland away from the water, dredging the stamp sand and storing it at the landfill.

“This week’s meeting was to inform the public and geared towards the local land owners in the area that is impacted by stamp sand of the potential alternative that was selected by the Buffalo Reef Task Force for mitigating environmental impacts of stamp sands on the ecosystem in Lake Superior,” said Jay Parent, with the Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

Thirteen plans were narrowed down to three, and then the final alternative which was presented this week.

A map shows the location of Buffalo Reef along the eastern side of the Keweenaw Peninsula in northern Michigan. Photo credit: Michigan Department of Natural Resources.

EGLE said the next steps are to secure funding. $10 million of that comes from the recently approved state budget. The majority of those dollars would go towards construction of a coal dock jetty.

“We’re calling it a coal dock jetty because it’s in the location of the original coal dock that was built to get coal into the area for the stamp mills. That would be a couple thousand foot long jetty sticking out into Lake Superior that would intercept the stamp sands that comes down the shore line. It would also give us infrastructure to work on to get the stamp sand out of the lake so we can transport it up the hill to the landfill,” said Parent.

Parent said one challenge is raising awareness for the size of the issue.

“I think it’s hard for people to grasp the magnitude of what’s going on up there unless you actually get up there and see it. It’s five miles of shore line. A couple hundred to three or four hundred yards across and it’s going out over a 2,000 acre, which is very large spawning reef.”

The Great Lakes Indian Fish & Wildlife Commission (GLIFWC) said tribal, state and federal agencies are working together on this project. Collaborative efforts have been active for more than a decade to find a solution and prevent further movement of the stamp stands.

“So for many decades there’s an ancient river valley just north of Buffalo Reef that has acted as a sediment trap preventing the stamp sands from covering over the reef. That trap has filled up. Lately it’s been dredged so there’s some additional capacity there. But it filled up and stamp sands were hitting over this spawning area,” said GLIFWC Environmental Specialist, Esteban Chiriboga.

For more than a decade GLIFWC said it has been working with state and federal agencies to find a solution to prevent further movement of the material.

Chiriboga believes the stamp sands went overlooked for decades because of its remote location and small population. He says Buffalo Reef is where lake trout and whitefish spawn. It is important to tribal communities and commercial fishing.

“For whitefish in particular, after they spawn on the reef, the juvenile whitefish move toward the lake shore. They like to live in shallow sandy environments. Because the northern part of the bay is covered with stamp sands that’s not really viable habitat anymore.”

Chiriboga said the impact on fish not only affects the ecosystem, but the economy.

“Just looking at state and tribal commercial fisheries, it has been calculated that this reef provides over four and a half million dollars every year of economic benefits to the area. Say you go a hundred years in the future, that’s $450 million already in benefits. Those benefits will be lost if we do nothing.”

A final report on the project should be out in August. EGLE officials believe it’s safe to say the total project will top $1 billion.