These days the vacant industrial site at Tannery Bay, on the St. Mary’s River just upstream from Sault Ste. Marie, proves there’s hope for communities willing to keep pushing for clean land and water. But 20 years ago the site at Tannery Bay was an industrial waste disaster, a case study for why Congress first passed America’s waste cleanup laws.

The place was so contaminated that back in the 80’s, people occasionally reported factory wastes, buried on shore decades earlier, catching on fire and burning with freakishly colored flames. Some suspected spontaneous combustion in summer’s heat; others suggested that neighborhood kids lit the fires. One patch of blue-green ground supported no life – it became known simply as the barren zone.

The 12-acre bay itself was loaded with contaminated sediments, a thick black bed laid down during decades of industrial discharge, first from a sawmill and then from a tannery that operated from 1901 to 1958. “There were three ditches for tannery discharge going to the river, and old aerial photos show waste swirling from them into the water, untreated and unfiltered,” says Bruce VanOtteren, a cleanup manager for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Chromium was the most prevalent contaminant found at the site. The metal was a central ingredient in tanning leather – the hides were soaked in a chromium solution to stabilize collagen. Investigators also found a good deal of mercury at the site. Mercury is not a common tannery chemical, but VanOtteren says some evidence suggests it was used at the Tannery Bay plant during World War II to make boots for soldiers. Apparently the U.S. sources for cowhide had tightened up, and the tannery had to import hides from South America, where anthrax had infected the herds. The tannery probably used mercury to sterilize the hides.

Industrial activity at the site came to a dramatic end when the tannery burned in 1958. “It was a spectacular fire – I’ve seen the pictures,” says Spencer Nebel, city manager of Sault Ste. Marie. The buildings were then demolished to their foundations. The site went idle and stayed that way.

When the United States finally decided to clean up industrial contamination, the Tannery Bay site made it on the Superfund project list. But to the dismay of locals, in the early 1990’s when the federal Environmental Protection Agency first unveiled a cleanup plan, they proposed building a landfill onsite to hold all of the contaminated soil. The community and MDEQ united against the idea because the site was so obviously prime for redevelopment. It has about 3/4 mile of shoreline and lies just a couple of miles from downtown.

The EPA eventually dug up the on-shore waste and hauled it to an existing landfill several miles away, a job completed in 1999. But still, some felt the job was incomplete because the agency left the sediments in the bay.

“I was never happy leaving that sediment in place,” says MDEQ’s VanOtteren, but he had no authority to overrule the EPA’s plan.

Tannery Bay’s final happy chapter was set in motion in 2002 when Congress passed the Great Lakes Legacy Act, a law designed expressly to clean up old sites that are leaking contamination into the freshwater seas. VanOtteren approached the site’s new owner, mining giant Phelps Dodge, and asked the site manager if he’d consider the cost-sharing cleanup arrangement the law requires. “He was receptive right away,” VanOttenen recalls.

The cleanup team installed a double-row of silt fences to keep contamination in the bay during dredging, and the process began in fall of 2006. With a break for winter, workers completed the job in September 2007. The bay sediment totaled 44,000 cubic yards, and when combined with the 40,000 cubic yards from the land cleanup, the two projects could have filled a 20-mile-long string of semi-trucks. The bay sediment alone contained 1 million pounds of chromium and 70 pounds of mercury, among other contaminants.

“The Superfund portion of this started before my time here, and I’ve been here 16 years,” says City Manager Nebel. “Cleanups this big are not for the impatient.” Plans for the cleaned site are in discussion.

Jeff Smith is editor at Traverse, Northern Michigan’s

Note: This article was first published in February 2008.