This worked great until the spreading plume extended its toxic reach northwest.
Edwards said he now tests wells at about 44 homes and one church. Just a few months ago, state monitors detected two homes at the leading edge of the plume with private wells that had TCE in their water. One home was below the 5 ppb standard, while the other, at the leading edge of the plume, was at 5.8 ppb.
“We’ve placed them on bottled water and we’re scheduled to hook them up [to the municipal wells] next month,” said David DeYoung, an environmental quality analyst with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
Everybody is getting safe drinking water, which is the state’s main concern, Adams said.
But that’s not enough, Street said.
“This stuff can be dangerous as a vapor … it can migrate out of soil in places like crawl spaces and basements,” Street said. People also are exposed to the vapor during showers. “That’s an issue that often gets ignored.”
In addition, the TCE is now venting into the Cedar River, which drains into the Lake Michigan watershed. TCE apparently is not a threat to fish, but the river is a drinking water source for thousands of people in northwest Michigan coastal communities. And the plume is on a direct path toward the new wells that are now relied upon for clean water in Antrim County.
The Cedar River well field, which is providing water to those living above the plume, taps deep into the aquifer, at about 600 feet below the surface. The plume is about 3 to 5 years from reaching the well field, but the deep wells “should buy us more time,” Adams said.
“This will be left for our children”
There are no current plans to clean up the plume.
In 2008, the Michigan DEQ came up with three options to tackle the problem: the first two would have extracted the water, cleaned it and pumped it back underground. But pumping the water out would take decades and cost up to $34 million, too much for the state, Adams said.
The state instead chose to focus on monitoring the plume and replacing the tainted water. The state has spent $17.8 million to expand the countywide water system.
“It’s the magnitude of the problem. If you look at how much we’d have to pump out to keep up, it’s mind-boggling,” DeYoung said. “They ran the numbers years ago and it’s just not feasible right now.”
The state has avoided applying for federal Superfund status because it wants the site to be redeveloped, Adams said. Michigan has an environmental liability program that allows new owners of a contaminated area to conduct an environmental assessment and, if there’s contamination from previous owners, the new owners are not liable. Since the plume will most likely not be removed, maintaining state control over the area will allow for potential development there.
The state will spend another $2.5 million in the next couple of years to continue monitoring and expanding the well system, DeYoung said.
Street and Baughman have different plans. Reaching out to university researchers and private engineers, their hope is to remove the TCE or, at the very least, “lasso” it to stop the spread, and conduct health studies.
“As we speak, no one is drinking bad water, but there’s still a dark side – you’ve left 13 trillion gallons of water contaminated,” said Dean Branson, past president of the Three Lakes Association, an environmental organization in Antrim County. “As of now this will be left for our children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.”
As the plume extends toward resorts frequented by downstate residents and inhabited by well-to-do retirees, it is getting increased attention. Right or wrong, Knapp said, hopefully that will spur more efforts to address it.