There is no longer any sign of the manufacturing responsible for dumping the chemical. The old Mt. Clemens Metal building has been torn down – leaving an empty lot scattered with nappy weeds, broken rebar and torn plastic fencing. The toxic aquifer is an “orphan site”, Adams said, because the company went bankrupt before the water contamination was discovered.
The state, which is responsible for cleanup, is monitoring the plume and working with local officials to make sure residents aren’t exposed to the carcinogenic chemical, Adams said.
TCE was declared a human carcinogen in 2011, after the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spent three decades analyzing its health risks. TCE can lead to kidney and liver cancer and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, according to the EPA’s report. The chemical also may be linked to bladder, esophageal, prostate, cervical and breast cancers, and leukemia.
No health study conducted
Some residents say the state isn’t doing enough to protect people.
“If this existed in a large metro area, like Detroit or Lansing or Grand Rapids, it would have gotten more attention a long time ago,” said Gary Street, an engineering consultant with Freshwater Future, a nonprofit working to address the contamination. “It’s a small community that’s been neglected.”
Despite three decades of contamination, there have been no human health studies in Mancelona, which has a median household income of $27,614 compared to Michigan’s $48,669, according to the 2010 U.S. Census.
“Some people asked about it [cancer prevalence] years ago, but we’re a small local health department,” said Charles Edwards, an environmental health supervisor at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, which covers four counties. “We don’t even have an epidemiologist on staff.”
The state’s Department of Community Health has “no record of involvement at the site,” said Angela Minicuci, a public information officer at the department in an email.
Cancer rates in Antrim County since 1985 have roughly mirrored that of the rest of Michigan, according to state data.
But once the plume was made public, county residents started worrying.
“There was a push for a cancer cluster study,” Knapp said. “People started saying ‘well, my neighbor died of cancer and drank the water for years.’ ”
Over the past decade, Knapp helped form a countywide community group called ACUTE (Antrim Coalition United Through Ecology), an avenue for local residents, businesses and organizations to keep tabs on what the state was doing about the TCE - and where it was heading.
Ann Baughman, associate director of Freshwater Future, said the people deserve to know whether they face a cancer risk.
“We (Freshwater Future) want to stop the plume but are also very concerned about the health both now and in the past. Did this company cause a spike in cancers here?” Baughman said.
Plume on the move
The state’s strategy for the past decade has been to annually test residential wells at the leading edge of the plume to make sure their water isn’t tainted.
“At one point we were sampling about 160 homes around the perimeter of the plume, and we were getting hits right away – as many as nine or ten [homes] with TCE and three or four of those with levels above the drinking water standard,” Edwards said.
The monitoring coincided with creating a countywide water system to get clean water to those affected. About a decade ago, state and local officials bought Mancelona’s aging, leaky water system and connected it with the Cedar River system, roughly five miles northwest of Mancelona. With a series of new pipes crisscrossing the county, they were able to get clean water to everyone, Knapp said.