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Who will pay for Michigan's orphaned, contaminated sites?

Jan 14, 2016

Michigan has more than 280 contaminated sites that are “orphans.” That means the company that made the mess no longer exists and the state has to deal with it.

But Michigan is running out of money to tackle these environmental problems. That was not good news for Antrim County, home to one of the largest contaminated sites in the country. State management of an underground plume of trichlorethylene (TCE) has been crucial here for years and will be needed in the future.

A lack of state funding to clean up the plume is causing concern 

It’s been more than a decade since residents like Ruth Ann Clark went onto city water because of the TCE contamination. Her water comes from Mancelona, about eight miles away from her house.

Clark has a small farm with llamas and donkeys. She says she spends more than $100 a month on water. She doesn’t know if the TCE plume has reached her land yet, but she’s not worried because she has clean water.

“It’s been okay,” she says with a smile.

But it’s not okay for everyone in Antrim County. In fact, millions more dollars must be spent to keep all her neighbors safe. Where that money will come from is a critical question for this community.

An expanding legacy of pollution

Not far from Clark’s home is Summit Village, part of Shanty Creek Resort. The resort is one of the main drivers of economic growth in this area. It was purchased in 2007 and the new owners say they’ve put another $15 million into it.

Realtor Donna Gundle-Krieg says a lot of money has been spent in Summit, one of three villages in Shanty Creek, where there’s a hotel and conference center.

“This is probably the area with the most expensive homes,” she says.

But homes here will need to hook up to city water soon, because the TCE plume is moving towards them.

Gundle-Krieg has a vacant lot listed in Summit Village for $10,000. She doesn’t expect to see a house on it anytime soon. She thinks it will be bought by someone who wants the beach access that goes with it on Lake Bellaire.

There is some confusion about exactly what is happening with the water. Gundle-Krieg says she frequently comes across homeowners who say they weren’t told anything about the plume when they bought property and ask her what the situation is.

Property owners between Mancelona and Bellaire have this trouble today because of a degreaser used to clean machinery 50 years ago.

Herb Tipton got a job at Mount Clemens Metal Products in the 1960s.

“The cleaning fluid was kind of a last resort,” Tipton says. “It was expensive.”
 
He says what they did use, they poured down the drain.

“But I don’t think anybody really knew the after-effects,” he says. “'Course, that’s true all over the world.”

Michigan comes up short for clean water

The TCE plume spreading across Antrim County might be the largest in the country, contaminating trillions of gallons of water.
 
That’s too expensive to clean up, so the state has spent $18 million to keep people from drinking the stuff. More will be needed to get clean water to everyone who will eventually need it. That’s why community leaders were surprised in 2014 when they were told there wasn’t enough money to extend more water lines.

They went to Lansing and proposed the state spend another $2 million to expand and upgrade the city water system. The state offered $500,000.

The idea that the state couldn’t afford to protect drinking water in Antrim County sent shockwaves through the community last year.

Dean Branson, with Three Lakes Association, says the state’s ability to manage this problem is critical. Without it, he says property becomes worthless since nobody will build a home on a lot that might not have clean water one day.

“You aren’t going to pay anything for that lot,” Branson says. ”You aren’t even going to pay your taxes. You’re basically going to let it go back to the bank.”

Branson helped work out a novel solution last spring. It involves the county sharing some of the costs of the next phase of work on the water system. Local governments seldom finance this kind of project. It’s usually left to the state or federal government.

The agreement was not easy to get. Some county commissioners said the state would find the money one way or another and voted against the plan. County officials insisted this is the only time they’ll spend money on this problem.

“It’s safe. It’s fine. There is no risk. It’s all managed. That’s our message.” - Bob Wagner (MDEQ)

Who will pay?

The agreement will protect everyone for a few years before more work is needed. Dean Branson says he’s confident the state will be there to help.

That’s because at a meeting this summer, a division chief from the Department of Environmental Quality told a room full of people that the state will protect their drinking water. On videotape, Bob Wagner said if anyone asks the DEQ whether it’s safe to buy property in Antrim County, the answer will be “yes.”

“It’s safe. It’s fine,” he said. “There is no risk. It’s all managed. That’s our message.”

Where the money will come from to keep that commitment is the question.

More than 280 contaminated sites were identified in Michigan in 2014 that still need work, including the TCE plume coming from Mancelona, and there is no more money to start new projects. In fact, Wagner says the state might have to pull back on groundwater monitoring at some of these sites next year.

The pool of money that has been used for this work in recent decades came from voter approved bonds. Voters have agreed to let Michigan borrow more than $2 billion since 1988 for an array of environmental initiatives.   

Finding a new long-term funding source is one of the goals laid out in Michigan’s new water strategy, a comprehensive approach to a variety of water-related issues. Conversations about how that could happen are just beginning in Lansing.