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Carcinogenic Chemical Spreads beneath American Town

Mancelona, Mich., suffers from one of the nation's largest plumes of an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene
Mancelona street scene



Fish and Wildlife

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.

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.

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.

“Mancelona is numb to poverty, problems,” he said. “But the plume doesn’t seem to be stopping and now the resorters are getting scared.

“The bottom line is everyone deserves to know that they’re drinking water that won’t hurt them.”

This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.

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