HOUGHTON – Millions of metric tons of legacy mine wastes threaten a key Lake Superior fish spawning ground and Grand Traverse Bay beaches and homes. Michigan Tech researchers and partners seek long-term solutions.
Off the coast of Gay, a small northern Michigan hamlet in the Keweenaw Peninsula, a potential environmental catastrophe lurks beneath the surface.
Mine tailings, known locally as stamp sands, are the remains of milling copper 100 years ago. The sands, dark in color, were piled on the edge of Lake Superior near Gay during milling operations. Constant wave action has caused the sands to migrate southwest along the shoreline of Grand Traverse Bay. The original sands pile was 22.7 million metric tons. Now just 2.4 million metric tons remain.
The stamp sands are covering the white sand beaches in the area, damaging the landscape for locals and tourists alike. The sands also have a high copper concentration (about two-eighths of a percent), which is toxic to fish and other organisms that live in Grand Traverse Bay. Under the waters of the bay is Buffalo Reef, a large boulder and cobble field where 20 percent of the southern Lake Superior whitefish and lake trout spawn. The fishery is valued at more than $5 million annually.
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