When I arrive at Bethany Hawkins, the first thing she does is offer me a glass of water from her well.
“Our water has always been very good,” she says.
But the Hawkins well might have an expiration date. It is estimated to be 675 feet from the edge of a polluted groundwater plume.
A toxic legacy
There are approximately 13 trillion gallons of groundwater containing TCE, or trichlorethylene, stretching from the village of Mancelona 6 miles to the edge of the gated community of Hawkins.
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TCE is a known carcinogen which can also affect the liver, kidneys, immune system and central nervous system. The plume is the legacy of an auto parts manufacturing plant that stored TCE-containing degreaser waste in unlined pits.
Hawkins and her husband bought this house in the northern Michigan resort town of Shanty Creek in 2004. Back then, they knew about the panache of TCE. But they chose their house because they thought it would be out of the way of the plume. But now…
“At this point, there’s really nothing we can do. It’s going to hit us,” she tells me.
The contamination has spread more than a mile towards the community of Hawkins since 2005, the year after she bought her home.
Some unexpected moves
A section of it recently took an unexpected turn west and may be moving faster than previously thought – the section near Hawkins’ house.
Janice Adams is a senior geologist with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.
“This narrow little area that seems to be going really fast, and has to be, you know, it’s very sandy and gravelly and he just seems to like going through that better than silt and clay,” she said.
The DEQ installed more test wells to monitor the progression of the plume in this direction. The engineering firm contracted by the state to map the plume, Amec Foster Wheeler, told me that it’s possible the plume’s westward movement isn’t new, just that maps from previous years under -estimated its scope.
The health department changes its policy early
Either way, the local health department just expanded the area of its “good first” policy five years earlier than it had planned.
Scott Kendzierski is director of environmental health services at the Northwest Michigan Department of Health. He says that policy requires homebuilders to hook up to public water if available, or test new wells for TCE before they can get a permit.
“If we identify that this site cannot support a safe drinking water well on site, we do not issue the septic permit so that they cannot go ahead with the construction project and invest a lot of money only to discover that they have contaminated the drinking water,” he said.
He says the size of the area covered by the policy increased by two square miles earlier this month.
The cost of clean water
The source of the contamination is an orphan site, meaning the companies responsible, Mt. Clemens Industries and later Wickes Manufacturing, no longer exist and cannot be made to pay for it.
In 2002, the state funded the formation of the Mancelona Area Water and Sewer Authority, or MAWSA – a local utility comprised of the water systems of Mancelona, Mancelona Township, and two adjacent resort communities. In total, the DEQ invested $27 million in monitoring, mapping, and extending municipal water to homes affected by the plume. About 500 residences had to abandon their wells and connect to public water. At-risk wells, like Bethany Hawkins’, are tested frequently, and if TCE is found, the home is given bottled water until municipal water can be extended.
In addition to residential wells, two public well fields could be impacted by the plume. One is actually a source for the Mancelona Area Water and Sewer Authority, the public supply to which affected property owners are connected. In 2015, the State and County Antrim teamed up to fund additional infrastructure that will provide drinking water if this field becomes contaminated.
The other threatened wellfield serves another resort area to the northwest, and its future is less clear. Janice Adams says it could be absorbed into the Mancelona system or connected to nearby Bellaire.
“At this point we are a few years away from even being impacted, so at this point we will have to assess and see if it is more cost effective to connect them to the town of Bellaire, the village of Bellaire. so has options there,” she said.
The DEQ still has a few more years of money to deal with the plume. But Adams says the bonds approved by voters who have backed this project since 2002 are nearly exhausted.
“The funding for this site comes from the Clean Michigan Initiative, and those funds are running out, but Lansing is working on other sources of funding to be able to clean up orphan sites in the state of Michigan,” she says.
But people who live in the plume path, like Bethany Hawkins, are still worried.
“Well, it’s nice that the DEQ is paying for me to be hooked up to public water, but what if someone says ‘oh, we’re not going to fund that anymore?’ ? You know, and with the state of the government at this point, it’s just not very comforting for me to accept that assurance.
State officials say it would cost too much to clean up the contamination. So they say they will continue to connect homes to municipal water as the plume moves.