MANCELONA, Mich. – When state and federal environmental officials visited this tucked-away town 15 years ago, their presence surprised local residents.
“My heart and most of my life has been spent here in Antrim County,” said Gary Knapp, a long-time resident. “And I knew nothing of its environmental problems.”
While removing metal contamination from local groundwater, officials had stumbled upon one of the nation’s largest plumes of an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene, or TCE. Drinking-water wells tap into this aquifer, so the state asked the town’s help in preventing the chemical from flowing out of people’s taps.
“People were helpless, frustrated and angry,” said Knapp, who was recruited by the state to start a regional water authority.
Fifteen years later, the underground plume of the carcinogenic chemical is now six miles long and continues to grow.
Over the past decade, new wells have been built and millions of dollars have been spent to ensure the 1,390 residents of Mancelona – known for its deer-hunting contests and bass festivals – aren’t drinking toxic water. But the TCE swirling beneath this remote, low-income town continues to vex state officials and residents as it creeps toward new wells that Knapp and others dug to replace tainted ones. The plume is another industrial scar in Michigan – one that is seemingly not going away.
“There’s no silver bullet to take care of this thing,” said Scott Kendzierski, director of environmental health services at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan.
“It’s just a monster.”
A small town’s industrial legacy
Though hours away from where the Rust Belt tightens across southern Michigan, Mancelona historically has had more in common with the economies of Flint, Detroit, Lansing and Saginaw than its tourism-dependent neighboring towns in the northwestern Lower Peninsula.
For decades, three factories employed most of Mancelona. One by one they closed, the most recent in 2009, leaving unemployment and economic stagnation behind. But one left something more toxic.
From about 1947 to 1967, Mt. Clemens Metal Products Company used the solvent TCE as a degreaser during the manufacture of car parts. The company dumped it near the building when they were done with it, according to officials with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
The chemical slowly seeped into the porous, sandy soil, contaminating the aquifer.
The plume – now polluting 13 trillion gallons of groundwater – is advancing northwest at a rate of about 300 feet per year. It has reached the Cedar River, which flows to a chain of lakes that wash into Lake Michigan.
In Mancelona’s groundwater, TCE concentrations as high as several hundred parts per billion have been detected in the center of the plume. The federal drinking water standard for the chemical is 5 parts per billion.
Used in large volumes by an array of industries, TCE is one of the most widespread contaminants in U.S. water supplies.
Its use has declined substantially over the past 15 years, said James Bruckner, a University of Georgia professor who specializes in TCE research. But widespread contamination remains. Michigan alone has about 300 TCE-contaminated sites, and about 60 percent of the nation’s Superfund sites contain the chemical.
Many large, miles-long TCE plumes remain in aquifers, particularly near military bases and their contractors. The Mancelona plume is the largest known one in the Great Lakes region and one of the largest in the country, said Janice Adams, a senior geologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.