Areas of Concern (AOC)

Science Center Objects

Under GLRI Action Plan II, federal agencies and their partners will continue to remediate and restore Areas of Concern. Federal agencies will implement critical management actions in all of the remaining AOCs and will complete all management actions required to delist the following ten: Buffalo River, Clinton River, Grand Calumet River, Manistique River, Menominee River, Muskegon Lake, River Raisin, Rochester Embayment, St. Clair River, and St. Marys River. Remediation and restoration in these Areas of Concern will include dredging contaminated sediment and restoring habitat (e.g., improving fish passage, restoring wetlands and removing dams).

BUI Removal Projects

Image: Household Products Could Harm Tree Swallows

USGS scientists and partners have found that tree swallow eggs exposed to elevated levels of perfluoroalkyl, substances (PFAS) are associated with a decreased chance of hatching. PFASs are common environmental contaminants used in products such as stain repellants and nonstick cookware. (Credit: Thomas W. Custer, USGS. Public domain.)

Bird or Animal Deformities AOC

New and existing tree swallow nest boxes will be monitored for reproductive success during the breeding season and egg, nestling, and diet samples will be collected at the appropriate time.  Samples will be analyzed for a suite of organic (dioxins and furans, polychlorinated biphenyl, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, and pesticides) and inorganic contaminants (for example, mercury, lead, cadmium, arsenic, and others).  A series of biomarkers of exposure (for example, genetic damage, EROD activity, thyroid assessments, and two omic assessments, etc.) will also be included in the study.  To provide a more complete assessment of exposure, archived samples of tree swallow eggs and nestlings may be inventoried and a subset selected for chemical analysis.

Work continues to provide data for State governments and EPA to use for their 'Bird or Animal Deformities or Reproductive Problems' Beneficial Use Impairment (BUI) assessments. Data on both exposure in representative tissues, as well as, actual assessment of reproductive success are being provided in peer-reviewed publications. Total PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are generally at either background or' no effect' concentrations in eggs, while dioxins and furans, as well, as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons are associated with increased egg failure rates. Several biomarker assessments, such as EROD activity and oxidative stress measures, are being provided to States and EPA to augment these other lines of data. Our three Areas of Concern include Waukegan Harbor, Milwaukee River, and St. Louis River. 

Fish Tumor Assessment

Working at AOCs to assess skin and liver tumor prevalence as well as potential risk factors.

Tail of white sucker fish with tumors

White Sucker with a body surface tumor diagnosed microscopically as a squamous cell carcinoma.(Public domain.)

Eighteenmile Creek Benthos Toxicity

The downstream-most section of Eighteenmile Creek, a tributary to the south shore of Lake Ontario in New York, was designated as an Area of Concern (AOC) because water quality and bed sediments were contaminated by past industrial and municipal discharges, waste disposal, and pesticide usage. 

Five beneficial use impairments (BUIs) have been identified in the Eighteenmile Creek AOC including the degradation of the “benthos”, or the benthic macroinvertebrate community. This investigation used sediment toxicity testing and macroinvertebrate community assessments to determine if the toxicity of bed sediments in the AOC differed from that of an unimpacted reference stream. Results from 10-day toxicity tests indicated that survival and growth of two test species did not differ significantly between sediments from the AOC and reference area. Analyses of benthic macroinvertebrate community integrity and structure also indicated that macroinvertebrate communities, while impacted across most sites on both streams, were generally similar between the AOC and reference area. Despite these findings, the upstream-most AOC site consistently scored poorly in all analyses, which suggests that localized sediment toxicity may exist in the AOC, even if large scale differences between the AOC and a comparable reference stream are minimal.

Niagara Benthos AOC

Niagara River Benthos Toxicity Testing (Public domain.)

Niagara River Benthos Toxicity

The degradation of the “benthos”, or the benthic macroinvertebrate community, was identified as one of seven beneficial use impairments caused by contaminated bed sediments in the Niagara River Area of Concern.

The U.S. Geological Survey and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, in cooperation with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, conducted a study in 2014 and 2015 to gather more extensive data on the toxicity of bed sediments and (b) the status of macroinvertebrate communities on the main stem and tributaries of the Niagara River. Sediment toxicity was negligible at most sites, however apparent toxicity at several tributary sites suggest that the quality of sediments may be adversely affecting benthic macroinvertebrate communities in some tributaries to the Niagara River.

Assessment of Contaminant Residues in Fish from AOCs in New York

This is a joint effort between the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC), Department of Health (NYSDOH), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). As part of this effort, the parties will collect information on chemical contaminants in fish from multiple AOCs in New York State and use this information to evaluate fish consumption advisories, which are a critical component of most removal criteria for “Restriction on Fish and Wildlife Consumption” BUIs. This project will help determine if current fish consumption advisories in applicable AOCs are appropriate, if they can be modified, and if they support or do not support BUI removal.

Benthos Toxicity at WI AOC

At two of Wisconsin's AOCs on Lake Michigan, the Sheboygan River and Milwaukee Estuary, the USGS will assess whether sediment toxicity from PCBs, PAHs, selected metals, ammonia, or dissolved oxygen is present at acutely toxic or chronically toxic concentrations using sediment toxicity tests conducted with amphipods and midges. This study helps address concerns regarding sediment toxicity, and it will inform management decisions regarding the Beneficial Use Impairment (BUI) for Degraded Benthos, which must be removed prior to delisting the AOCs.

WI AOC Benthos Toxicity: All four of Wisconsin's Areas of Concern (AOCs) along Lake Michigan have the "Degradation of Benthos" Beneficial Use Impairment (BUI) designation, although little historical data is available to compare conditions at the time of listing to current conditions. This BUI is one of the most widespread BUIs in the United States, and benthic invertebrate (benthos) communities at some AOCs may never be brought back to a predisturbance state. The BUI is most often related to sediment contamination but water chemistry, substrate type, inadequate food supply, and river flows may also be important. Current data related to toxicity of the sediments at these four AOCs is not available and the USGS is uniquely poised to provide this data in a regional context and build upon benthos community studies that it has been doing in these sites. The need is presently greatest at two of these AOCs: Sheboygan River and Milwaukee Estuary.

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) Source Tracking in Milwaukee River AOC

Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) are a group of over 100 different chemicals that are formed during the incomplete burning of coal, oil and gas, garbage, or other organic substances and are classified as human carcinogens. The goal of the Milwaukee River AOC PAH project is to assess sources in the Milwaukee Estuary, also known as the Kinnickinnic River Great Lakes Legacy Act (KKGLLA) project area.

Ecomapper for BUI Removal at Grand Calumet AOC

The Ecomapper is used for sonar, velocity, bathymetry and water quality. (Public domain.)

Supporting Beach Closure BUI Removal at Grand Calumet AOC

Jeorse Park Beach (JPB), located in the heart of the Grand Calumet River Area of Concern (AOC), has more than twice the number of beach closing days per season due to high E. coli bacteria levels compared to any other beach in the AOC (based on 2010-2014 beach closings data; IDEM 2016 Removal of the beach closings BUI for the Grand Calumet River AOC will require a solution to the high bacteria levels at JPB.

Buffalo River Area of Concern: Sediments

Buffalo River AOC Sediment Study with multiplates

Scienctist using multiplates for Sediment study in the Buffalo River. (Public domain.)

Contaminated bed sediments in much of the Buffalo River AOC were removed (dredged) between 2011 and 2015. Plans to monitor and assess the effectiveness of this management action on 8 of 9 beneficial-use-impairments (BUI), including the benthic macroinvertebrate (benthos) BUI, were revised by the Buffalo Niagara Rierkeeper (Riverkeeper, 2014). The USGS-New York Water Science Center (NYWSC) and the NYSDEC plan a collaborative study to evaluate multiple lines of evidence (toxicity of sediments and the condition of benthic macroinvertebrate communities) to determine if recent (2014) dredging efforts have improved the quality of sediments, benthic macroinvertebrate communities, and the status of the benthos beneficial use impairment (BUI) in the Buffalo River Area-of-Concern (AOC). Sediment samples will be collected once from each of 5 sites in remediated segments of the AOC and from each of 5 reference sites, located upstream of the AOC in the Buffalo River, during 2017 using either a Petite Ponar grab sampler. Both acute and chronic toxicity of sediments is being generated by a contract laboratory using USEPA-approved methods for Chironomus dilutus and Hyallela azteca. Macroinvertebrate samples will be collected from submerged multiplate (Hester-Dendy) samplers in September 2017 and processed by a subcontract laboratory using standard New York State methods; community metrics will be compiled by the NYSDEC Biomonitoring Unit. The USGS and NYSDEC will compare benthic-community metrics and sediment-toxicity data from AOC sites to analogous data from non-AOC (reference) sites in the Buffalo River to determine if the remediation has restored the benthos beneficial use in some or all impaired segments over the short term (2-years post dredging) in the Buffalo River AOC. The established criteria for removal of the benthos BUI in the Buffalo River AOC are:” (1) Benthic macroinvertebrate communities are non-impacted or slightly impacted according to NYSDEC indices; AND (2) In the absence of conclusive community structure data, the toxicity of sediment-associated contaminants is not statistically higher than controls.” Additional surveys are planned for 2020 to meet monitoring requirements listed in the June 2014 monitoring plan to assess criteria for removing the benthos BUI at least 5 years after remediation.

Catching fish for sampling in the Statewide Fish Contaminant Study, Buffalo River AOC

USGS Scientist collecting fish on the Buffalo river for the Statewide Fish Contaminant Study, Buffalo River AOC. (Public domain.)

Statewide Fish Contaminant Study: Buffalo River AOC 

The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and Department of Health (NYSDOH), and the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) are sampling fish from the Buffalo River AOC during summer 2017 to help determine if current fish-consumption advisories are appropriate and if residue data support or do not support removal of the “Restrictions on Fish and Wildlife Consumption” BUI (No. 1) as described in the June 2014 “Buffalo River AOC: A Monitoring Plan for the Delisting of Impaired Beneficial Use Impairments” document prepared by the Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper. The USGS and NYSDEC collected fish and tissues, shipped samples, currently are analyzing contaminant residues (via a subcontract laboratory) and plan to conduct data quality reviews, summarize and analyze data, and prepare and publish a final report or paper for efforts in the Buffalo River AOC during FFYs during July 2017. Results will provide information needed to assess removal criteria (There are no AOC-specific fish and wildlife consumption advisories by New York State (e.g. carp for PCBs)) for BUI #1 at two- and five-years post dredging. If data support the NYSDOH relaxing AOC-specific fish consumption advisories, the report (and data from the 2020 survey) will be used to justify removal of the “Restriction on Fish and Wildlife Consumption” BUIs in the Buffalo River AOC. Additional surveys are planned for 2020 to meet monitoring requirements listed in the June 2014 monitoring plan to assess the fish-consumption BUI at 2 and 5 years post remediation.

Areas of Concern (AOC)/Beneficial Use Impairment (BUI) Priority Projects

The USGS is evaluating the current condition of benthic communities (organisms that live on the lake or river bottom), toxicity of bed sediments, and evaluating criteria for delisting BUIs for a number of AOCs. USGS also provides science for the Birds and Animal Deformities BUI in AOCs monitoring new and existing tree swallow nest boxes for reproductive success during the breeding season. Samples (eggs, nestlings and diet) are collected and analyzed for a suite of contaminants to allow for a more thorough assessment of the sediment removal remediation. 

Collecting sediment in a backwater of the Manistique River

Collecting sediment in a backwater of the Manistique River and Harbor Area of Concern (AOC) on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Aquatic insects accumulate contaminants like PCBs in their tissues as larvae, then transfer them to predators such as spiders when the emerge from the water.(Public domain.) (Photo Credit: David Walters).

Technical Assistance Projects

Technical Guidance for Assessing Remedy Effectiveness at AOCs and Great Lake Legacy Act GLLA Sites

We are developing broad guidance to assess remedy effectiveness at Great Lakes Areas of Concern and other Great Lakes Legacy Act sites. This involves collaborating with US EPA to develop a technical guidance document for managers who wish to implement a remedy effectiveness assessment, conducting actual remedy assessments in support of the USEPA Great Lake Program Office. In addition, we conduct field work to develop and implement the use of riparian sentinels of aquatic contamination (spiders) for use in the Great Lakes and other aquatic systems.