Special Report: Examining Our Drinking Water

In the wake of the Flint water crisis, Northern Michigan’s News Leader looked into the water in our area.

A contamination in Antrim County has been around for years.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality keeps a close eye on it.

"We’re dealing with the sins of our fathers on this one."

The MDEQ is dealing with a massive contamination in Antrim County groundwater, a cleaning solvent called TCE was used by a manufacturing company from the 1940’s-1960’s and dumped into lagoons outside the plant.

Little did they know that solvent could cause cancer and would be poisoning people’s wells decades later.

"The companies responsible for that are no longer in business so it became an orphan site. The state of Michigan took over the responsibilities of investigating the contamination and providing drinking water to the public in about early 2000s," says Senior MDEQ Geologist Janice Adams.

The contamination now affects 13 trillion gallons of ground water. The plume stretches six miles between Mancelona and Bellaire, spreading a mile and a half wide.

We learned how the DEQ monitors the plume.

"We sample about 45 different residential drinking wells that are private, not on the municipal system, every year and once it’s detected in their water then we’ll provide them bottled water, we’ll hook them up to the municipal system," says Adams.

The plume is impacting the ground water at three different depths, reaching as deep as 500 feet, and it’s moving.

The shallow zone moves between 320 and 400 feet per year. The intermediate moves about 100 feet per year and the deep zone moves less than 50 feet per year.

Because of the different depths, the DEQ needs to use different tools to get to the groundwater for testing.

"We pump air into a chamber and it squeezes the bladder, which is an accordion and that allows water to enter into the accordion, and then push it back up and through this tubing so we sample from this tubing," says MDEQ Geologist Len Mankowski.

More than $20 million have been spent by the DEQ to do this monitoring and move residents to the municipal system.

A pricey but necessary investment.

"We’ve gotta know for sure what’s there and we don’t want to be alarmists, but we don’t want anybody to be exposed as well," says Mankowski.

Those who are working to raise awareness for this plume understand it’s pretty difficult to try and visualize what it actually looks like. So Three Lakes Association built a 3-D model that actually gives people a better perspective of what it looks like from underground.

"All these green little lines coming down, those represent every time she puts a monitoring well in and you can see where these black lines are, that’s where the screens are located," says former Three Lakes Association president Dean Branson.

Branson advocates for funding to monitor the plume. Monitoring not removing TCE, because that isn’t a realistic option.

"If we put some skin in the game, which meant a local $250,000, they would come up with the rest of the money and the local community did and the state is now committed to finishing these two projects," says Branson.

One project is to build a new storage tank where the municipal wells are.

The plume is moving right at the well field, but the tank will help pull water from an area under the contamination.

"The plume will travel over that above where this area is and the contamination will continue on and go on further for hundreds of years," says Branson.

The other project will connect a new water main to the Mancelona supply wells, ensuring TCE is not getting into people’s water.

"It could almost scare you to death if you read the newspaper articles, read it on the internet. It’s like this is scary but the water that’s being supplied through those water mains is really good," says Branson.

"Our main concern is public health and we’re providing safe drinking water to everybody and we’ve also been extending drinking waters to areas that need it," says Adams.

For more information on the Antrim County TCE Plume, visit the MDEQ’s website. Additional videos about the plume can be found here