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Map showing location of White Lake AOC in the Great Lakes



John Perrecone

White Lake Area of Concern

Lake Michigan

On Oct. 30, 2014, EPA announced that White Lake had been removed from the binational list of AOCs. The White Lake Area of Concern is the first site in the Lake Michigan basin to be delisted.


White Lake was one of 43 heavily contaminated areas in the Great Lakes basin designated as an Area of Concern (AOC) by the United States and Canada under the 1987 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement. AOCs experienced significant environmental degradation over many decades, suffer from various types of environmental impairments, and are considered to be the most contaminated areas in the basin. Since 2010, almost $5 million from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has been used to complete the actions necessary to remediate and restore the White Lake AOC. Of the eight environmental impairments originally present in the White Lake AOC, none remain. On Oct. 30, 2014, the White Lake AOC was formally removed (i.e., delisted) from the list of Great Lakes Areas of Concern.

White Lake is a 2,571-acre lake along the eastern shore of Lake Michigan in Muskegon County, Michigan near the communities of Whitehall and Montague. Most of the land around the lake is wooded or grassy, with sand dunes along Lake Michigan. Land use in the White Lake watershed is mainly recreational and agricultural, with residential, commercial, and industrial use in the towns of Whitehall and Montague.


Montague Dump before

The White Lake Montague Dump site restoration was littered with rusty barrels, tires and other debris.
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White Lake during

Construction crew removes contaminated sediment from White Lake.
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White Lake after

White Lake Causeway after restoration shows healthy wildlife and new recreational apportunities.
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White Lake was originally listed as an AOC in 1987 due to the presence of organic solvents in the water. Solvents from the former Occidental Chemical Co. facility contaminated the local groundwater, which then contaminated the lake. In addition, tannery operations, municipal waste disposal practices, and habitat alterations to the White Lake shoreline contributed to the decline of the White Lake ecosystem.

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Beneficial Use Impairments

When valuable uses of one of the Great Lakes are harmed by pollution, they are called Beneficial Use Impairments. The Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement lists 14 BUIs present in the Great Lakes Basin, and the White Lake AOC contained eight of these:

  • Restrictions on Dredging Activities (removed in 2011)
  • Eutrophication or Undesirable Algae (removed in 2012)
  • Degradation of Benthos (removed in 2012)
  • Restrictions on Fish and Wildlife Consumption (removed in 2013)
  • Loss of Fish and Wildlife Habitat (removed in 2014)
  • Degradation of Fish and Wildlife Populations (removed in 2014)
  • Restrictions on Drinking Water Consumption and Taste or Odor Problems (removed in 2014)
  • Degradation of Aesthetics (removed in 2014)

When BUIs are substantially improved and other environmental goals are met, an AOC can be considered for delisting.

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Efforts towards restoration

  • In 2014, with the removal of the last four BUIs, the process of delisting the AOC began.  In July 2014, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) formally requested that EPA start the process to delist the AOC.  EPA reviewed MDEQ’s request and agreed that the White Lake Area of Concern should be delisted.  After appropriate notice of the intent to delist was provided by EPA to a number of parties, including the general public, tribal nations, and the Government of Canada, the White Lake AOC was delisted on October 17, 2014.
  • In 2013, using $2.5 million in Great Lakes Restoration Initiative funds, EPA remediated the Tannery Bay shoreline in White Lake. The project removed contaminated sediment from the nearshore area, restored shoreline, created opportunity for residential and recreational development, and improved the area’s aesthetics.
  • In 2013, to address the loss of shoreline and nearshore habitat, the Muskegon Conservation District and the White Lake Public Advisory Council completed the White Lake AOC Shoreline Habitat Restoration Project, using a $2.1 million grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The project restored the White Lake shoreline and upland habitat at 10 sites and led to the removal of the habitat-related BUIs.
  • In 2005, the RAP was revised to include a stronger focus on public interest in White Lake.
  • In 2005, Koch Chemical agreed to install a new well for the City of Whitehall due to groundwater contamination overlapping with the city’s “groundwater protection area”.
  • In 2003, Occidental/Hooker Chemical dredged 12,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment from the lake near their outlet discharge pipe.
  • In 2002 and 2003, MDEQ cleaned up approximately 95,000 cubic yards of tannery waste, mercury and chromium from the Tannery Bay location.
  • In a 1995 update to the RAP, an eighth BUI was identified.  
  • In 1987, Stage I of the Remedial Action Plan for White Lake (RAP) was published. It identified seven BUIs and described the history of contamination in the AOC.

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What is a beneficial use impairment?

Impairment of beneficial use is a change in the chemical, physical, or biological integrity of the Great Lakes system sufficient to cause any of the following 14 use impairments:

  • restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption
  • tainted fish and wildlife flavor
  • loss of fish or wildlife habitat
  • degraded fish and wildlife populations
  • fish tumors or other deformities
  • bird or animal deformities or reproductive problems
  • degradation of benthic macroinvertebrate communities
  • restrictions on dredging activities
  • eutrophication or undesirable algae
  • restrictions on drinking water consumption or taste and odor problems
  • beach closings
  • degradation of aesthetics
  • added costs to agriculture and industry
  • degradation of phytoplankton and zooplankton

What is a remedial action plan?

The remedial action plan, or RAP, is a process to clean up the waterfront, rivers, habitats and waters. The United States and Canada, as part of the Great Lake Water Quality Agreement, committed to cooperate with State and Provincial Governments to ensure that RAPs are developed and implemented for all Areas of Concern in the Great Lakes basin. Forty-three AOCs have been identified: 26 located entirely within the United States; 12 located entirely within Canada; and five that are shared by both countries. RAPs address impairments to any one of 14 beneficial uses (e.g., restrictions on fish and wildlife consumption, dredging activities, or drinking water consumption) associated with these areas.

What is a delisting target?

In order to move towards formal delisting, RAPs need delisting targets to gauge their success:

  • Delisting targets should be premised on local goals and related environmental objectives for the watershed; they should be consistent with the applicable federal and state regulations, objectives, guidelines, standards and policies, when available, and the principles and objectives embodied in Annex 2 and supporting parts of the GLWQA.
  • Delisting targets should have measurable indicators.
  • Delisting targets should be developed and periodically reviewed on a site specific basis (allowing for flexibility in addressing local conditions) by the respective state agencies, in consultation with local stakeholder groups. This is particularly important if new information becomes available.

More information about the delisting process>>

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