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Injection well proposal worries neighbors of Northern Michigan landfill

Feb 6, 2018

Near a landfill in northern Michigan, residents have been dealing with undrinkable water for decades. Now, a new proposal at the landfill makes them even more concerned.

In 2005, Rita McNamara’s well broke and she needed a new one. McNamara says she was walking her property with a well driller when a woman from the county health department drove up.

“And she had a clipboard in her hand and she said, ‘whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. You can’t just drill a regular well here,'” McNamara says. “And she said, ‘Yeah, you are in a restriction zone. You’re in a risk zone.’ And I said, ‘well that’s the first time that I’ve heard about it.'”

McNamara lives in Manton, near Cadillac.

She says the county health official told her she would have to get a special kind of well drilled. That well would be twice as expensive as a normal well – just under $14,000. So McNamara went to the Wexford County Department of Public Works.

"I said, ‘I’ve got to drill a super-duper, special well because of your practices at the landfill. So guess what? I’m not paying for it. You are.’ And it took awhile, but yeah, they paid for that well," she says.

This risk zone surrounds a landfill that’s more than 100 acres. Decades ago, industrial waste dumped at the site contaminated drinking water.

American Waste took over the landfill in recent years. The company collects waste from all over northern Michigan.

Soon, the company would like to inject a different contaminant underground instead of trucking it off site. It’s called leachate. It’s a byproduct of landfills.

American Waste declined to comment for this story.

The proposal is controversial. Residents question whether it’s safe.

Hal Fitch works for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. It’s one of the agencies that will decide if American Waste can inject the leachate underground. This is one of the most recent injection well proposals the DEQ is reviewing.

Fitch says it’s safer to inject the leachate than truck it off site.

“They can only be injected into deep formations that are isolated from freshwater,” he says.

Fitch says the proposed well would be about 2,000 feet below the freshwater people drink.

“And in between that freshwater zone and the proposed injection zone are multiple layers of very low permeability rock,” Fitch says.

He says there are nearly 1,400 active injection wells in Michigan right now. Most of them are for oil and gas byproducts.

Fitch says Michigan has a long history of safe injection wells with no cases of contaminated drinking water.

Christopher Grobbel disagrees. He’s an environmental consultant in Traverse City who used to work for the DEQ.

“There have been numerous violations and releases, including at the Hoskins Manufacturing deep injection well in Mio; Enviro Geotechnologies well in Romulus. So there have been problems in Michigan,” he says.  

He says there might not be evidence of groundwater contamination, but there was evidence of soil impact. And he says, injection wells have contaminated drinking water in Florida and in Texas.

Who takes on the risk?

“Let’s face it, nothing that we do as human beings is entirely risk free. We can’t ever guarantee that,” says the DEQ's Hal Fitch. "But we feel, in the case of injection wells, that they’re what anybody would deem to be safe, as long as they’re constructed and operated according to our standards."

Rita McNamara’s not on board.

“But why do I need to have any risk?” she asks. She’s not the only one who feels that way. All local municipalities came out against the proposed injection well.

The DEQ is tasked with protecting drinking water, but right now public trust in the agency is low.

Hal Fitch says the DEQ cares about public input, but ultimately the state will follow the law.

“So if that well meets all the regulations and the company, the applicant can demonstrate that it has all the necessary safeguards, then they qualify for a permit. And that’s what our decision has to be based on,” he says.

A public hearing is expected in the next few months. After that, state and federal agencies will make a decision.