Stretch of Toxic Groundwater in Small Michigan Town Is 6 Miles Long and Growing

Thursday, September 05, 2013
Mancelona wastewater treatment site (AP Photo)

Government regulators in Michigan are losing the fight against a mass of underground chemical pollution—now six miles long and still growing—that is once again threatening the water supplies of a small, working-class community.


Residents of Mancelona thought the state government had a handle on the problem 15 years ago, when experts showed up to test their wells. Then, a plume of an industrial solvent called trichloroethylene (TCE) was discovered.


The government spent millions of dollars helping the community of 1,390 dig new wells to avoid drinking toxic water. But the TCE plume—one of the largest in the nation—has continued to expand, and is again threatening to contaminate the water people use in their homes.


Experts don’t seem to have any answers.


“There’s no silver bullet to take care of this thing,” Scott Kendzierski, director of environmental health services at the Health Department of Northwest Michigan, told Environmental Health News (EHN). “It’s just a monster.”


The chemical got into the ground decades ago, when the Mt. Clemens Metal Products Company used TCE as a degreaser while making automobile parts from 1947 to 1967. Workers dumped the solvent outside the factory, which allowed it to seep into the soil and eventually reach the aquifer.


The plume has polluted 13 trillion gallons of groundwater, and is advancing northwest at a rate of about 300 feet per year. It already has reached the Cedar River, which connects to Lake Michigan through a chain of lakes.


There have been no human health studies conducted in Mancelona, and citizens are concerned that the decades of contamination may have caused an increase in the cancer rate. “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,” engineering consultant Gary Street of nonprofit Freshwater Future told EHN. “It’s a small community that’s been neglected.”

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Carcinogenic Chemical Spreads Beneath Michigan Town (by Brian Bienkowski, Environmental Health News)

10 Toxic Towns (by Roger Fillion of SwitchYard Media, MSN Real Estate)

More than 12,500 Contaminated Water Sites Cannot be Cleaned-Up for 50-100 Years (by Matt Bewig, AllGov)


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