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Date of Award


Document Type

Master's Thesis

Degree Name

Master of Science in Environmental Engineering (MS)

College, School or Department Name

Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering

First Advisor

Noel R. Urban


The copper mining boom in Michigan's Upper Peninsula ended in the mid-1960s, but the historical mining still affects the region to this day. Earlier studies conducted in the Keweenaw have shown that trace metals in the sediments negatively affect benthic macroinvertebrate populations. However, because the concentrations of trace metals that are observed to be toxic often differ significantly between the laboratory and the environment, a better method for determining toxic levels of trace metals in the natural environment is desirable in order to establish surface water quality guidelines that effectively protect aquatic life.

There were four research objectives for this research project. First, to determine if trace-level concentrations of copper can result in detectable ecological impacts even in the presence of high dissolved organic carbon (DOC). Second, to determine if there is a "safe" concentration of total dissolved copper below which there is little to no ecological impairment. Third, to establish which streams in the Keweenaw Peninsula have been most impacted by elevated levels of total dissolved copper. Fourth, to use this information to evaluate revisions to the water quality criterion for copper that were recently proposed by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). In order to collect water quality and macroinvertebrate data, two sampling surveys of approximately 50 streams were completed in the spring and summer of 2012.

Our findings demonstrate that negative ecological impacts can be detected even in the presence of high concentrations of DOC. The majority of surveyed streams showed evidence of total dissolved copper concentrations that were elevated above background levels. Our findings suggest that there are detectable negative impacts below the current water quality standard for copper in many Keweenaw streams. The diversity of benthic macroinvertebrates and the number of species present has been reduced as a result of exposure to copper. Additionally, the multimetric approach used by MDEQ is unable to detect copper impairment in local streams due to the use of several insensitive metrics. The proposed changes to the copper criterion would increase the amount of total dissolved copper allowable despite the fact that approximately 25% of streams sampled have aquatic chemistries that would leave them vulnerable to high levels of copper ions.