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

September 9, 2013 | Disaster, Emergency

When state and federal environmental officials visited the tucked-away town of Mancelona, Mich., 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.”

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 but widespread contamination remains.

This story illustrates the types of communities that RCAP works with and the types of challenges that it helps small, rural communities deal with.

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