Out of sight, out of mind: Carcinogenic chemical spreads beneath Michigan town


By Brian Bienkowski
Staff Writer
Environmental Health News

September 3, 2013

MANCELONA, Mich. – When state and federal environmental officials visited this tucked-away town 15 years ago, their presence surprised local residents.

Brian Bienkowski

“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 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. Workers 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.

Brian Bienkowski

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 plant 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.

Gary Knapp

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.

“There’s no silver bullet to take care of this thing. It's just a monster.” – Scott Kendzierski, Health Department of Northwest Michigan“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?” she said.

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