This week is the inaugural Source Water Protection Week. Although the term “source water” is unfamiliar to many, the resource to which it refers is critical to the health of millions of Michigan residents.
“Source water” refers to the untreated source of public drinking water supplies. For most municipal supplies in Michigan, source water is drawn from the Great Lakes, including Grand Rapids and metropolitan Detroit, although a few communities have river or inland lake water sources. Several large communities, such as Lansing and Mt. Pleasant, use groundwater as source water and serve about 1.7 million Michigan residents. (For about 1.25 million Michigan households serving 2.6 million residents, private well water is the source of drinking water.)
Drinking water sources for all Michigan communities served by public supplies can be foundhere.
Contamination of source water, over decades, has affected scores of Michigan communities, often at great public or private expense for treatment and cleanup. For example, a chemical facility and railroad paint shop threatened the groundwater well field serving Battle Creek, and resulted in tens of millions of dollars in cleanup costs. It is far cheaper to prevent contamination by keeping polluting facilities and activities away from source waters.
Individuals can also help prevent contamination of drinking water sources. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency offers ideas here.
Click here to see a larger version of the SepticSmart graphic.
By Dave Dempsey
Groundwater, a critical part of Michigan’s water cycle, is out of sight—and so is the groundwater pollution that contaminates thousands of drinking water wells and reaches hundreds of rivers and lakes across the state. Despite its invisibility to the naked eye, groundwater contamination sickens Michigan residents. About 45% of the Wolverine State’s population drinks well water.
Among the biggest culprits in degrading Michigan’s groundwater are failing septic systems. Designed to treat household wastewater in areas not served by sewers and buried beneath the land surface, septic systems require proper maintenance if they are to avoid polluting groundwater. Such maintenance includes regular inspections and, when necessary, pumping out of the wastewater. But because there are no inspection and maintenance requirements in most areas of the state, an estimated 130,000 septic systems in our state are failing. That means sewage and associated microorganisms are reaching groundwater, lakes, and streams.
September 20-24 is SepticSmart Week in Michigan and nationally—an opportunity for owners of property with septic systems to learn about the threat failing systems pose to our water resources, and ways to prevent or minimize such pollution. As our allies protecting Crystal Lake in Benzie County, Michigan, point out: Being septic smart can extend the life of a septic system, keep well water safe, protect the environment and prevent accidents at home.
FLOW’s Groundbreaking Reports on Groundwater
As FLOW described in our fall 2018 report on groundwater contamination in Michigan, and a second report we released earlier this year, our state is the only one of the 50 states that lacks a statewide sanitary code requiring regular inspection and maintenance of small, mainly domestic septic systems. Because of the gap in state protections, some counties, townships, cities, and villages are enacting local ordinances in place of statewide requirements, but they are relatively few out of Michigan’s approximately 2,000 local units of government.
Septic systems are small-scale wastewater treatment options, used when a home or complex cannot easily be connected to a municipal sewer system. Raw sewage and wastewater (e.g., bath water and dishwater) are first pumped from the home into the septic tank. This is an underground, sealed, concrete tank where the household waste is treated. Here, solid waste sinks to the bottom of the tank and materials such as oil form a layer of scum on top. Bacteria in the tank break down the solid waste, while the wastewater migrates out of the septic tank and into the drain field. Perforated pipes distribute the liquid wastewater throughout the drain field. Once out of the pipes, the wastewater effluent seeps through a gravel layer, then through the soil. Both filter the wastewater before it flows into the groundwater or nearby surface water.
Leaking or malfunctioning septic systems allow organic wastewater compounds like nitrate and E. coli to percolate through the soil and enter the groundwater. Leakage and effluent runoff are also major contributors to E. coli levels in surface water. The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has identified 196 rivers, lakes, and beaches with E. coli levels over the EPA limit.
Between 2013 and 2014, an estimated 5.7 billion gallons of untreated sewage from failing septic systems were pumped into surface water in Michigan. A 2015 study headed by Dr. Joan Rose, co-director of Michigan State University’s Center for Advancing Microbial Risk Assessment and Center for Water Sciences, sampled 64 river systems that drain approximately 84 percent of the Lower Peninsula for E. coli and the human-specific source tracking marker bacteria called B-theta. The more septic systems in the watershed, the more human fecal source tracking bacteria were found in the water.
Failing septic systems have been correlated with disease. A 2003 study found that septic system densities were associated with endemic diarrheal illness in central Wisconsin.
Septic Systems and Emerging Contaminants
Human wastes are not the only pollutants that failing septic tanks are releasing to groundwater and surface water. So-called emerging contaminants are found in household wastes, whether they discharge to publicly owned sewage systems or septic tanks. Twenty different studies on septic systems have identified 45 contaminants in septic effluent, including pharmaceuticals, personal care product ingredients, chemicals in cleaning products, flame retardants, hormones (both natural and synthetic), and other common substances such as caffeine. Septic systems are somewhat effective at removing chemicals such as acetaminophen, caffeine, and alkylphenols, a common group of ingredients used in cleaning products. But some chemicals remain largely untreated, including the carcinogenic flame retardant TCEP, an anti-epilepsy drug called carbamazepine, and the antibiotic sulfamethoxazole.
One cause of the septic system pollution problem is homeowners’ lack of awareness. A 2018 study of mid-Michigan residents likely to have septic systems, conducted by Public Sector Consultants, found:
Approximately 30 percent of residents did not know they have a septic system.
The average age of septic systems was 28 years old.
Forty-three percent of respondents indicated they had not had their system pumped within the last 5 years, and 25 percent indicated that they did not pump or maintain their system on a regular basis.
Only 15 percent of residents were aware of the normal lifespan of a septic system.
Only 11 of 83 Michigan counties have ordinances that require septic tank inspection at the time property is sold. Within the first 6 years of implementing their ordinances, two Michigan counties found 1,000 failed septic tanks and 300 homes without any septic system or other wastewater treatment.
Protect It and Inspect It: Homeowners should generally have their system inspected every three years by a qualified professional or according to their state or local health department’s recommendations. Tanks should be pumped when necessary, typically every three to five years.
Think at the Sink: Avoid pouring fats, grease, and solids down the drain. These substances can clog a system’s pipes and drainfield.
Don’t Overload the Commode: Only put things in the drain or toilet that belong there. For example, coffee grounds, dental floss, disposable diapers and wipes, feminine hygiene products, cigarette butts, and cat litter can all clog and potentially damage septic systems.
Don’t Strain Your Drain: Be water-efficient and spread out water use. Fix plumbing leaks and install faucet aerators and water-efficient products. Spread out laundry and dishwasher loads throughout the day—too much water at once can overload a system that hasn’t been pumped recently.
Shield Your Field: Remind guests not to park or drive on a system’s drainfield, where the vehicle’s weight could damage buried pipes or disrupt underground flow.
Pump your Tank: Routinely pumping your tank can prevent your septic system from premature failure, which can lead to groundwater contamination.
Test Your Drinking Water Well: If septic systems aren’t properly maintained, leaks can contaminate well water. Testing your drinking water well is the best way to ensure your well water is free from contaminants.
Source: Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in FLOW’s 2021 Report: Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency.
By Dave Dempsey
Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor
The many chemical contaminants in Michigan’s groundwater, coupled with the lack of environmentally sustainable federal and state chemical policies, continue to put Michigan at risk. An example is trichloroethylene (TCE), a cancer-causing manufactured chemical that has contaminated groundwater at more than 300 locations in Michigan.
In 2020,Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE.
FLOW’s 2021 Deep Threats groundwater report
Michigan should follow suit.
Commonly used as a solvent toremove grease from metal parts during manufacturing processes or to make additional chemicals, TCEhas also been used to extract greases, oils, fats, waxes, and tars by the textile industry; in dry cleaning operations; and in consumer products such as adhesives, paint removers, stain removers, lubricants, paints, varnishes, pesticides, and cold metal cleaners.
TCE released into the environment can pollute soil, groundwater, and the air. TCE’shigh mobility in soil often results in groundwater contamination. TCE is slow to degrade and time-consuming to mitigate when it contaminates soil and groundwater. When spilled on the ground, TCE can travel through soil and water and contaminate drinking water supplies, including public and private wells.
In 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the country to outlaw many remaining uses of TCE. Michigan should follow suit.
It can also evaporate. TCE vapors can enter buildings through cracks in the foundation, pipes, and sump and drain systems, thus contaminating indoor air. This phenomenon is known as vapor intrusion. At several Michigan locations where housing and office structures were built on contamination sites, TCE was left in soils rather than being excavated and removed, andhas vaporized into these buildings through foundations and basements. In some cases, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has temporarily evacuated occupants of the buildings because of the danger of air inhalation of TCE.
TCE has been characterized ascarcinogenic to humans through all routes of exposure and poses a significant human health hazard. Exposure to large amounts of the chemical may lead to coma, nerve damage, or death. TCE is known tointerfere with early life development and lead to developmental toxicity, immunotoxicity, and neurotoxicity. This chemical has also been linked to damage to eyesight, hearing, the liver, the kidney, balance, heartbeat, blood, nervous system, and respiratory system.
In the workplace, exposure to TCE may cause scleroderma, a systemic autoimmune disease, and, in men, it has been observed to result in decreases to sex drive, sperm quality, and reproductive hormone levels. TCE has been linked to Parkinson’s disease. There is controversy over a decision made by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) duringthe Trump Administration to reverse findings that TCE exposure to human embryos causes heart defects.
Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1977banned the use of TCE in food, cosmetic, and drug products in the United States. In Canada, TCE is no longer manufactured, and the Canadian Environmental Protection Act of 1999 is intended to significantly reduce the use and release of TCE as a solvent degreaser into the environment. Several other countries, including Sweden and Germany, have regulations to control the use, and subsequent risks, of TCE.
In November 2020 a U.S. EPA study found that52 of 54 uses of TCE still permitted present unreasonable risk to worker and consumer health. The EPA has two years to finalize a rule to reduce the risks posed by the 52 uses.
State action also has a place in efforts to protect human health from TCE. On May 16, 2020, Minnesota became the first state in the U.S. to ban high-risk uses of TCE. In effect, beginning June 1, 2022, any facility that is required to have an air emissions permit by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agencymay not use TCE.
This ban was enacted largely due to the work of the Neighborhood Concerned Citizens Group (NCCG) of White Bear Township, Minnesota, which sought the ban after the Water Gremlin, a local fishing sinker manufacturer, had admitted to leaking elevated levels of TCE for nearly 17 years.
Dumped in shallow, sandy pits decades ago, TCE has contaminated 13 trillion gallons of groundwater in Mancelona, Michigan, making the Wickes Manufacturing plume the largest TCE plume in the United States. By contrast, the entire Grand Traverse Bay contains about 10 trillion gallons of water. Taxpayers have spent more than $27 million to provide safe drinking water to Mancelona residents of properties whose private wells have been contaminated by TCE.
Severalcase studies have been performed to analyze the effectiveness of TCE alternatives in the United States.One example is a Schick facility in Verona, Virginia, that manufactures a variety of steel blades and uses TCE in both cleaning and degreasing operations. The company made TCE elimination a priority. The resulting process modifications reduced occupational and public risk and resulted in an approximate cost reduction of $250,000 from reduced energy use and material and hazardous waste disposal costs. Several companies in Michigan have also made the switch to TCE-free degreasing products.
Given the uncertainty of federal policy, Michigan should not wait to take action to limit most TCE uses, just as Michigan did not wait for the EPA to set enforceable standards for toxic PFAS in drinking water. Because it has a paramount interest in protecting the health of its residents, Michigan should act with urgency to pass a state law to control TCE.
It’s not often that two high-ranking officials in Michigan’s state government lash out at a company in strong language. But that’s what happened May 7 when Michigan Attorney General Dana Nessel and Liesl Clark, the director of the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE)slammed 3M.
The trigger for their statement was a lawsuit filed April 21 by 3M in the Michigan Court of Claims to block state drinking water rulesadopted in August 2020. The standards, which protect public health by setting maximum allowable levels of seven toxic PFAS compounds in public drinking water supplies, were promised by Governor Gretchen Whitmer in her 2018 campaign. They are among the strongest standards in the nation for these “forever chemicals,” which remain in the environment indefinitely. 3M has manufactured PFAS chemicals since the 1950s.
PFAS are a group of chemicalsused to make coatings and products that resist heat, oil, stains, grease, and water. These coatings can be used in such products as clothing, furniture, adhesives, food packaging, heat-resistant non-stick cooking surfaces, firefighting foam, and the insulation of electrical wire.According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), PFAS have been linked to human health effects, including an increased risk of kidney and testicular cancer, decreased vaccine response in children, an increased risk of high blood pressure and pre-eclampsia in pregnant women, and decreased birthweight. PFAS have been found inat least 166 locations in Michigan. The CDC conducted a study between 2000-2014 that found 98% of Americans have some amount of PFAS in their blood, according to the State of Michigan.
“3M knows it is responsible to address contamination in Michigan and it has been unwilling to do so,” said Attorney General Nessel. “Now, it wants to change the rules so that it can continue to shirk its responsibility to Michigan residents and to the health of the water resources that define our state.”
Nessel added, “We will not tolerate these poisons in our environment and our drinking water, and we will not tolerate a corporation like 3M putting its dollars ahead of our health and our water.”
3M’s lawsuit argues that the rules adopted by Michigan are scientifically flawed and were approved via a process that the company terms hasty and designed to suit the Governor’s timeline. But the Michigan PFAS rules went through a rigorous process, including the establishment of an expert science panel to review studies and recommend appropriate standards. The draft rules were then subject to a public comment process and public review by two state committees.
Michigan’s decision to set state PFAS drinking water standards was due in part to the failure of the Trump Administration to pursue national standards. On Trump’s last full day in office January 19, his EPA finally announced a plan to set standards for the two most well-studied PFAS compounds, PFOS and PFOA, five months after Michigan’s PFAS rules took effect. Federal rule-making can take several years.
Last month, the state’s Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART)announced that Michigan’s approximately 2,700 municipal and other large public drinking water supplies are meeting the state’s new PFAS standards.
Attorney General Nessel in January 2020 sued 3M and 16 other companiesfor damaging Michigan’s environment by deliberately concealing the dangers of PFAS and withholding scientific evidence, and “intentionally, knowingly and recklessly” putting at risk Michigan’s natural resources and public health. In August 2020, she sued 3M and other manufacturers of firefighting foam containing PFAS. The litigation is still pending.
In 2018, the state of Minnesotasettled a lawsuitagainst 3M Company for $850 million. The state sued 3M in 2010, alleging that the company’s production of PFAS had damaged drinking water and natural resources in the Twin Cities metro area. About $720 million of the settlement is being invested in drinking water and natural resource projects in the Twin Cities east metropolitan region.
According to apoll undertaken by the International Joint Commission’s Great Lakes Water Quality Board in 2018, approximately one-fifth of surveyed residents of the Great Lakes Basin do not.
If the same ratio applies to Michigan, about 1.5 million adult residents of the state are uncertain where the water they drink originates.
During Michigan’s2021 Drinking Water Awareness Week, May 2-8, filling knowledge gaps is a critical priority. The source of your drinking water is crucial, and so are threats to its safety and legal and environmental defenses to its contamination.
One surprising fact to many is that45% of Michigan’s population drinks water from underground sources. Of that share, 1.25 million households with 2.6 million people are served by private wells; 1.7 million more people are served by community wells.
Awareness of that fact is vital for those who use well water. Unlike public water supplies, drinking water from private wells is not routinely tested for pollutants. Instead, the burden is generally on homeowners—and so is the testing cost, which can be steep. A test for toxic PFAS, known as “forever chemicals” with potentially major human health effects, costs up to $300. The Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) has posted information and recommendations related to exposure to PFAS in drinking water.
Like all groundwater resources, private water wells are vulnerable to unseen pollution. FLOW has documented some of this pollution in two groundwater reports, including one released this March, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake. Toxic substances, nitrate, chloride, bacteriological, and other contaminants are found in private wells across Michigan. The Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development reports that elevated nitrate levels have been identified at 18 percent of private sites tested for nitrate, and half of these contain nitrates above public drinking water standards. Some contaminants, such as nitrate, do not affect the taste and appearance of drinking water and thus could be consumed without people noticing.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that private well usershave their water tested annually for contaminants. CDC also recommends keeping household hazardous materials such as paint, fertilizer, pesticides, and motor oil far away from wells.
For Michigan residents who receive drinking water from public water supplies, safety and contamination are regulated. Federal and state Safe Drinking Water laws require regular testing and treatment of public water. Customers of public water supplies are entitled to receiveannual consumer confidence reports.
According to the state, 15 violations of drinking water quality standards detected in community water systems in 2017 involved indicators of fecal coliform, and all were corrected. There were 17 violations of chemical standards that year, two for nitrate, 12 for arsenic, and three for combined radium.
However,the dangerous lead contamination of the Flint public water supply in 2014-2015 exposed 99,000 residents of the city to this neurotoxin. The state and the city of Flint have established a lead exposure registry to identify eligible participants; monitor health, child development, service utilization, and ongoing lead exposure; improve service delivery to lead-exposed individuals; and coordinate with other community- and federally funded programs in Flint.
Many Michiganders drink bottled water—some as a short-term replacement for contaminated public or private water supplies, but far more for convenience and hydration. Many bottled water customers, however, do not realize thatmuch bottled water comes from public supplies—they are drinking bottled tap water from systems paid for by taxpayers and marked up for significant profit by the private sector. Aquafina and Dasani labels in Michigan are drawn from the public supply for Southeast Michigan. And most of the remainder of bottled water packaged in Michigan—such as some of Nestlé’s operations—comes from groundwater that is tributary to Michigan’s streams and lakes—in effect, it and consequent private profits come from sources that belong to the people of Michigan under the public trust doctrine.
Drinking water is not to be taken for granted. Becoming aware of sources and threats is vital to our health. You can learn more about FLOW’s efforts to protect groundwater here on our website.
Michigan groundwater policy has failed to evolve even as understanding has grown about groundwater’s importance and its interconnection with the Great Lakes. The simple fact that Michigan has approximately 14,000 groundwater contamination sites with an estimated cleanup bill of over $1 billion—most of it likely to be charged to taxpayers—should make groundwater a public policy imperative. The first major step toward fulfilling the public commitment to groundwater is the enactment of a Michigan Groundwater Protection Act with elements described in FLOW’s recent report,Deep Threats to our Sixth Great Lake: Spotlighting and Solving Michigan’s Groundwater Emergency.
Michigan’s groundwater crisis has drawn little attention, but it is a worsening problem for our state. FLOW’s recent groundwater report, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake, spotlights its implications, and calls for a change in state law to protect our groundwater and public health. Click here for the Deep Threatsfact sheet.
The lack of urgency in strengthening protection of Michigan’s groundwater is shortsighted. When rivers burned in 1969, federal lawmakers passed the Clean Water Act. When the Exxon Valdez spilled 11 million gallons of crude oil into Prince William Sound in 1989, Congress toughened safety requirements for shipping of petroleum products.
Similarly, Michigan’s Legislature responded rapidly to a major mercury contamination crisis in 1970 and findings about the toxicity of PCBs in 1976. Yet spill after spill of hazardous materials into groundwater has happened for decades in Michigan, and the policy response has been incremental.
This is inexplicable when 45% of the state’s population gets its drinking water from groundwater wells. Groundwater is also critical to agriculture, manufacturing, and even recreation; steady, cool groundwater flow is vital to Michigan’s renowned trout streams, like the Au Sable River.
Michigan Law Views Groundwater as Expendable
Michigan law views groundwater from the vantage point of how much of it we can sacrifice instead of how much we must protect. Rather than establish an overarching protection policy, our statutes treat groundwater as something available for assimilating pollution. Scattered among our laws are provisions allowing differing treatment of groundwater depending on the pollution source–landfills, oil and gas development, underground injection of hazardous wastes, permitted discharges, agricultural pollution, management of contaminated sites, and more.
Michigan should formally adopt a Groundwater Protection Act that calls for protection of groundwater as part of a single, hydrological whole. In connection with streams, lakes, and wetlands, groundwater should be held in trust for the benefit of citizens, protected from pollution or impairment, a critical drinking water source, directly related to public health. The policy should emphasize the state’s primary duty to prevent pollution of groundwater or its connected waters of the state, and to support public education concerning groundwater consistent with this overall policy.
A Groundwater Protection Act is crucial to Michigan’s future. FLOW will ask citizens concerned about the protection of these vital waters to join with us in seeking action by state officials in months to come.
It’s natural to stand on the shoreline of one of the Great Lakes and admire their vastness and majesty. But another abundant water resource in the basin is out of sight and rarely commands such appreciation.
That’s groundwater. Between 20-40 percent of the water budget of the lakes (the total water flowing in and out of the system) originates as groundwater. Without this unseen water, the Great Lakes would be dramatically different from those we know. Strengthening public appreciation of and public policy protecting groundwater is a fundamental part of Great Lakes stewardship.
Groundwater fills the pores and fractures in underground materials such as sand, gravel and other rock. It is not an underground river or lake. But because of its sheer volume, scientists have dubbed groundwater in the Great Lakes basin as the sixth Great Lake.
Groundwater is critical to the ecology and economy of the Great Lakes region. Because it remains at a near-constant, cold temperature year-round, the discharge of groundwater to rivers supports trout streams. Groundwater also is crucial to the health of a rare type of wetland called prairie fens and supports the region’s public health and economy.
Despite its value, the region’s groundwater is widely contaminated from sources such as failing septic systems, inappropriate application of animal waste and agricultural fertilizers, abandoned industrial sites where chemicals were used and leaking landfills.
The widespread detection of groundwater contaminated by a class of chemicals known as Per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS) has revealed a source not previously recognized: airports and military bases where firefighting foams were heavily used in training exercises.
Cleaning up contaminated groundwater is often difficult and expensive. Sometimes, government agencies choose to leave it in place. The state of Michigan, for instance, has spent more than $27 million to provide affected homeowners with a clean public water supply rather than removing a toxic chemical known as TCE from a 13 trillion gallon plume of contaminated groundwater originating from a former chemical handling facility in Mancelona, east of Traverse City.
Although the exact influence of groundwater on the quality of the surface waters of the Great Lakes has not been pinpointed, plumes of contaminated groundwater often discharge to lakes and streams.
The GLWQA recognizes the interconnection between groundwater and the waters of the Great Lakes. It calls for Canada and the United States to identify groundwater impacts on the surface waters of the Great Lakes; analyze contaminants, including nutrients in groundwater, derived from both point and nonpoint sources; assess information gaps and science needs related to groundwater; and analyze other factors, such as climate change, that affect the impact of groundwater on Great Lakes water quality.
Individuals contribute to groundwater contamination, and also stewardship. Simple actions you can take to protect groundwater include properly disposing of household hazardous wastes, reducing lawn fertilizer use or using phosphorus-free fertilizers, and supporting community groundwater mapping and education efforts.
Groundwater is out of sight and often out of mind, but its importance to life and the quality of the Great Lakes is undeniable. Taking care of the lakes means taking care of the groundwater that feeds them.
Green ooze photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT)
By Dave Dempsey
When a mysterious green slime crept onto the shoulder of I-696 in Madison Heights last year, it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. Instead, it was the inevitable result of state policies since 1995 that have treated Michigan’s groundwater as an essentially worthless resource. And Michigan residents have been paying both in tax dollars and health risks ever since.
The source of the Madison Heights green ooze, which contained toxic hexavalent chromium and TCE, was the former Electro-Plating Services business beside the freeway, according to the State of Michigan. The subject of numerous state and federal enforcement actions for sloppy handling of toxic waste, Electro-Plating Services had gone into bankruptcy. The state found that improper waste management allowed the chemicals to seep into the ground below the facility and eventually exit onto I-696.
The owner of the Madison Heights building linked to the green ooze has reportedly started to clean up his Detroit property after months of pressure from city and state officials.
Had this occurred between 1990 and 1995, the company would have been required to clean up the soils and/or install a barrier to keep the contaminants within them from migrating off-site. But the 1995 changes to state law created categories of “use-based” cleanups. If the party responsible for the mess could show the property’s groundwater would not be a drinking water source, the contaminants could remain. But groundwater is not static. It moves.
Groundwater is not the drinking water source for most of southeast Michigan; the region gets most of its drinking water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. But leaving toxic chemicals in place assumes groundwater will never again be a drinking water source. Found in many locations around the state, volatile organic chemicals in soils and groundwater can also vaporize through basement floors and into occupied buildings, threatening human health.
The Electro-Plating Services contamination will be costly to the taxpayer. In March of this year, a state legislative committee approved $600,000 in taxpayer funds to clean up the site and demolish the building. The full cost of the cleanup may exceed $1 million. The company’s owner paid a different kind of price, a one-year jail sentence for criminal violations and restitution of $1.4 million.
The green ooze site is farm from unique. “As visually dramatic as this it, it really draws attention to the fact that there are thousands and thousands of sites across the state where soil and groundwater is contaminated,” Tracy Kecskemeti, district supervisor for Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy said, “and we only have the resources to address a small number.”
Michigan can and must do better. It must identify funding to clean up those thousands of sites, and to compel private parties responsible for groundwater contamination to carry the weight of cleanup. But the state must also change policies that allow groundwater pollution to remain in place – and then to move, endangering the environment and human health.
In the Great Lakes state, we think of water as abundant, if not inexhaustible. Not far from Grand Rapids and Muskegon, Ottawa County is bordered on the west by the bulging waters of an engorged Lake Michigan. However, over the past 30 years, increasing use of groundwater is causing water shortages and increasing pollution within the groundwater supply.
In terms of population, Ottawa County is the fastest growing county in the state. Grand Haven is in the northwest corner and Holland is in the southwest corner of the county, and Grand Rapids sits just to the east in Kent County. Ottawa County has four sources for its water supply; Lake Michigan, inland lakes, a glacial drift aquifer, and a deeper bedrock aquifer. Most of the population receives drinking water from public water systems supplied by Lake Michigan, while the major groundwater users are irrigated farms and rural homeowners.
Michigan State University (MSU) completed two comprehensive Ottawa County groundwater reports between 2011 and 2016. The reports tabulated groundwater use, and defined geology and hydrology for the county and the region. The chart below from the MSU studies shows a sharp increase in water use starting in about 1990, led by increases in irrigation (IRR), followed by domestic wells (DOM), with smaller uses by industry and public groundwater systems. Total water use quadrupled between 1990 and 2015.
The MSU reports found that the primary issue for groundwater supply is that the bedrock aquifer water levels have declined by as much as 45 feet. This means that more groundwater is being taken out of the aquifer than is being recharged by rainfall. This lowering of groundwater levels has caused a change in flow patterns within the bedrock aquifer, resulting in increased salinity and higher chloride levels. Eight percent of samples are now above the Secondary Drinking Water Standards for chloride of 250 milligrams per liter (mg/L), which are designed to protect against taste, odor and color impacts. Many more are at levels harmful to agricultural irrigation, which can be as low as 70 mg/L. Background chloride concentrations in Michigan are typically 10-30 mg/L. The following chart from MSU studies shows increasing chloride levels since around 1995.
The bedrock aquifer, part of the Marshall sandstone formation, is an old seabed, and in some places has salinity levels higher than the ocean. Historic freshwater recharge has diluted these levels to create potable water, but the increased pumping has changed the flow regime. This groundwater conundrum is not confined to Ottawa County. Intensive groundwater pumping in other Michigan counties in the Saginaw Bay area and southeast Michigan has caused similar situations of increasing salinity.
So, what should be done about these situations? How can we live in a state with what seems like so much available water and yet have water shortages? Steps are being taken to reduce future use of the bedrock aquifer in Ottawa County. Allendale Township bans new housing developments from using groundwater. Ottawa County has prepared a groundwater sustainability plan to influence future groundwater use. The plan hopes to balance economic growth and preserve the groundwater resource. Groundwater level and quality monitoring are an important part of the plan, along with closer monitoring of water use.
But how long do we watch as degradation to the aquifer occurs before more decisive action takes place? Methodically switching irrigation supply and rural homes from the bedrock aquifer to a Lake Michigan source could permanently halt this degradation. Lack of action could harm the aquifer for future generations.
FLOW board member Bob Otwell is a hydrologist and founder of Otwell & Mawby
Over half the U.S. population, including 99 percent of the rural population, relies on groundwater for its drinking water supply. In Michigan, 45 percent of the population has a drinking water supply of groundwater. Groundwater is also used in crop irrigation and industrial processes. But many citizens are generally unaware of the nature and critical importance of groundwater.
Groundwater is water found underground in cracks and spaces in soil, sand, and rock. These underground stores of water are called aquifers. Aquifers consist of permeable materials like gravel, sand, sandstone, or fractured rock, like limestone, that allow water to flow through. Groundwater can be found almost anywhere: the area where water fills the aquifer is called the saturation zone, and the top of the saturation zone is referred to as the water table. The water table may be located a foot below the ground’s surface, or it can be hundreds of feet down.
Groundwater can be extracted from aquifers naturally or artificially. Springs naturally bring groundwater to the surface and discharge it into lakes and streams (surface water bodies). Wells drilled into the aquifer can also pump groundwater to the surface.
Groundwater supplies are recharged or replenished by rain and snow melt. There can be shortages if groundwater supplies are used up faster than they are naturally recharged, or if supplies are polluted by human activities.
Most people do not realize the impact they can have on groundwater. Anything poured or spilled onto the ground’s surface can end up in the groundwater supply, even years later, and contaminated groundwater can ruin human and animal health. Overuse can lead to shortages in the water supply. The average American uses 100 gallons of water every day. If the rate of use exceeds the rate of natural recharge, a shortage may occur. With the level of public and industrial dependence on groundwater, such a shortage could be devastating.
Every individual has a responsibility to protect groundwater, because every individual is impacted daily by the quality and quantity available.
How to Protect Your Groundwater
Test your well
If your drinking water comes from a private well, have the water tested. Spring is a great time to test well water, particularly for health-related concerns like bacteria and nitrate. Check out this fact sheet on water well testing by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).
Properly fill and seal an unused well on your property
Wells that are no longer in use represent a direct conduit for pollutants to contaminate the groundwater aquifer. If you have an unused well on your property, take steps to ensure that it is abandoned properly and will not contaminate groundwater in the future. Here is information you need to know from EGLE.
Take steps to reduce your water use
About 45% of Michigan residents rely on groundwater as their primary water supply. Reducing water use conserves groundwater, since most groundwater used in homes is discharged to lakes and streams and not returned to the aquifer. Some quick and easy solutions to reduce your water use include buying more efficient appliances, faucets, and toilets. Planting less water-intensive landscaping and using rain barrels to collect rainfall for watering the garden can also help to conserve groundwater. Often times, reducing water use results in lower water bills and energy savings as well. Read more here.
Do a spring cleaning of hazardous materials around your home
Old motor oil, unused or old paint/varnish or other cleaning products often build up in and around our homes. Take an opportunity during this week to do a spring cleaning of hazardous materials so that they do not end up contaminating groundwater or surface waters. Dispose of them properly — that means not down the storm sewer, and not down your septic system either.
Learn about water quality for your community water supply
Many “city” water supplies in Michigan use groundwater. About 12,000 public wells service 1.7 million citizens. Contact your local water utility and ask them for the most recent water quality data or learn about how your community’s water supply is protected.