Paper mill pipe failure, pollutant caused Michigan fish kill, state finds

Charles E. Ramirez
The Detroit News

Pollutants from a Delta County paper mill caused a fish kill earlier this month in the Escanaba River at Gladstone in the Upper Peninsula, state officials said this week.

They also said it appears the it didn't cause any long term harm to the river's ecosystem.

“We have been sampling and monitoring the river at numerous points since this incident occurred,” Tom Asmus with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, or EGLE, said in a statement. “All indications are that the environmental conditions in the river have recovered.”

An early August 2020 fish kill in the Escanaba River in the U.P. was caused by a pipe failure at a paper mill, state officials said.

Asmus monitors compliance with the National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System program in the eastern Upper Peninsula for the agency. Under the Clean Water Act, the program controls point source discharges of pollutants to waters of the U.S.

The fish kill was reported Aug. 9, 2020, to EGLE and the Department of Natural Resources after a pipe failure at Verso Corporation’s Escanaba Paper Mill released a chemical byproduct of a process at the mill into the river, according to officials.

It affected dozens of species, including northern pike, bass, walleye and other sportfish, which were found by anglers down stream from the paper mill.

The agency said the mill reported a ruptured pipe had been affecting its wastewater treatment before the fish kill happened. It was repaired and the quality of the water flowing out of the mill has improved, EGLE officials said.

According to Asmus, the mill released something called "black liquor" into its wastewater treatment plant when the pipe failed. The substance is a high-strength organic pollutant derived from the breakdown of pulpwood. The mill burns the chemical to generate energy, he said.

“The black liquor overwhelmed the facility’s wastewater treatment system causing effluent (outflow) violations,” Asmus said. “The wastewater system remained functional however, it was not capable of treating the black liquor entirely."

The chemical then drew dissolved oxygen from the river's water, killing numerous fish, he said.

Verso did not report any release of toxic chemicals into the river, according to the agency.

Jeff Maule, Verso's director of environmental, health and safety, said the company continues to work with the state to address the fish kill.

Based in Miamisburg, Ohio, Verso makes graphic and specialty papers, packaging and pulp. In addition to the Escanaba facility, the company has paper mills in Duluth, Minn., Quinnesec, Mich., and Wisconsin Rapids, Wisc. Its Escanaba mill has been in operation since 1911, employs about 885 people and can produce up to 730,000 tons of paper per year.

“Our top commitment is to the safety and well-being of the environment and communities where we operate, and we know how much our local waterways mean to everyone in the area," Maule said in a statement to The Detroit News. "We coordinated with the Michigan Departments of Natural Resources and Environment, Great Lakes and Energy to respond to a recent matter at our Escanaba Mill on the middle branch of the Escanaba River, where the site’s water treatment system briefly overloaded and decreased oxygen levels in the river.

"While not harmful to people, we share serious concern for any impact on water wildlife, which were already affected by higher than normal water temperatures. As noted by EGLE, outflowing water has returned to normal. We thank the state agencies for their continued coordination and support." 

Both EGLE and DNR officials are working to determine how much damage the leak caused to the Escanaba River downstream of the mill. Asmus said once that's done, EGLE will begin enforcement proceedings against Verso, which may include resource compensation to reinvest in the fishery.

State officials collected some of the dead fish retrieved from the Escanaba River in a trash bag.

Twitter: @CharlesERamirez