Chris Newland stirs up the brown, coffee-like water of a pond at the north end of a former industrial landfill near Otsego. (Photo by Ryan Lewis)

New results overturn dioxin finding in Otsego

Soil sampling up next for Otsego area; former landfill concerns loom
By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

Except for a trace amount in one well, the latest round of residential well tests around Otsego showed neither dioxin nor PFAS contamination.

These results directly refute a round of summertime testing that had prompted state agencies to provide alternate water starting in early September to 17 homes that appeared to have dioxin contamination.

By October, however, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality had spotted contradictions in the test results. Officials said the data showed that contamination of the testing lab’s equipment was the likely cause.

Of the 67 wells from the summer testing, the 21 with the highest of the now-presumed faulty levels of dioxin were resampled.

In a Jan. 7 announcement, the MDEQ said only one showed the presence of dioxin. The trace amounts for the lone positive result were far smaller than the limit for drinking water. A different laboratory was used for the October resampling effort.

That was welcome news for Pam McQueer, an area resident and founder of the community action group that has helped link agencies and the public—but this doesn’t settle the issue for her.

“It’s a good thing,” McQueer said. “It is good news, but a lot of people don’t have any faith in the DEQ because the tests were botched the first time.

“And now we need to go further and get into the ground and make sure that’s not going to be a problem.”

 

Trace

Dioxin is a highly toxic contaminant that causes cancer, reproductive and developmental problems, damage to the immune system, and interference with hormones.

In groundwater, it is measured in parts per quadrillion, or ppq. Since there are a dozen types of dioxin-like chemicals, the measurement is a calculation called a toxicity equivalent quotient, or TEQ.

The well’s TEQ of dioxin measured at 0.13 ppq. Agencies would only take action if the amount was 30 ppq or higher, a level for drinking water set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That means the well tested at a little more than 200 times smaller than the allowable limit.

According to the DEQ, dioxins are a group of chemicals that may be formed during chemical and paper manufacturing. In early 2018, residents brought concerns about contamination and high rates of health issues in the Otsego area to federal and state agencies.

 

The pond and PFAS

Recent tests also show contamination did not appear to be in wells near a former industrial landfill.

At a town-hall-style meeting in October, DEQ officials detailed how they were studying former industrial sites and cataloguing where waste from the paper industry had been spread. Documents collected about the now defunct Menasha Corporation showed that a pulpy sludge waste from the paper-making process had been spread on area crop fields. A syrupy, dark liquid byproduct called liquor was also spread for decades on roads as dust control.

In October, DEQ officials said a pond at the north end of a former Menasha industrial landfill had tested at higher than 1,000 parts per trillion for PFAS. The safe limit is 70 ppt. The landfill is just north of 106th Avenue near Hill Road.

That set of chemicals consists of per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances the EPA says are likely carcinogens and also are linked to other illnesses.

The five monitoring wells around the landfill and several residential wells showed little to no traces of PFAS in the first round of testing. Based on the high level found in the pond, however, the monitoring wells were retested along with 20 additional residential wells in the surrounding area after the October meeting.

“All residential well samples came back negative for PFAS,” said the Jan. 7 DEQ announcement.

Results for private well owners will be mailed to individual homeowners.

Several concerned citizens don’t think this is the end of the story, however. Having seen the coffee-colored water in the pond for themselves and noting water runoff from the sides of the landfill property into nearby streams, area residents Chris Newland and Deb Beattie hope state agencies will investigate the landfill site further.

“I want it all tested,” Newland said. “Don’t you think if that pond tested so high, they should be all over this site testing? It seems like there’s a lack of a sense of urgency. It’s all over funding, I understand that, but part of it is that they let this go for 40 years and didn’t monitor it.”

Beattie said she’s watched liquid ooze out of the landfill site. Giving a tour of the land adjacent to the landfill, she encouraged state officials to drink the water.

“Because that’s exactly what these people (in nearby homes) are drinking,” she said.

Newland said he’s documented the sheen on the water that runs off the landfill site.

 

Soil

The next step the DEQ laid out in its plan in October involves testing the soil.

The agency has worked with a soil sampling consultancy to create a sampling plan to balance cost with gaining a representative survey of the soil.

McQueer doesn’t think soil sampling will turn up news as good as the water tests.

“I’ll be surprised if there’s nothing there,” McQueer said. “We all know the city was contaminated. It’s just a matter of when it was there and what were the chemicals.”

The best case scenario would be if the contamination had broken down to safe levels in the many decades since it was spread throughout the area. The chemicals tend to be long-lived, however.

She said she lived across the street from the landfill, in 1977 to 1978, on land that had stored the industrial liquor.

“We refer to my old house as ground zero,” McQueer said. “I remember showering and the water stinging my skin.”

She said she believes that the health problems many residents in that area face are due to the chemicals from Menasha.

“Auto immune disorders, the typical cancers and endocrine and reproductive problems—they’re very consistent. For my particular health history, there’s no way possible anyone could have all the things wrong with them had there not been some kind of exposure.”

She went blind for six months as one of several illnesses at the time; she continues to struggle with her health today.

State agencies have studied the cancer data for the Otsego and Plainwell zip codes. while rates are somewhat higher than would be expected, they have so far hesitated to link the contamination with cancer rates or other diseases in the area.

In any case, McQueer said she’s already in talks with a law firm familiar with how to handle these types of cases and is willing to take on the case should contamination be discovered.

Otsego residents with additional questions about test results can call the MDEQ Kalamazoo District Office at (269) 567-3500 or the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services at 1-800-648-6942.

Contact Ryan Lewis at rmlewis@allegannews.com or (269) 673-5534.

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