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Lake's 'black scar' stirs fight


Monday, June 10, 2002

By Ed White
The Grand Rapids Press

MANISTEE -- In the mildest terms, it's described as a coffee-colored plume. Judy Fill chooses stronger words.

"A black scar," she said.

"I was shocked," state Sen. Ken Sikkema said after seeing her photos.

For more than 30 years, a paper company has been discharging treated wastewater about a quarter-mile out into Lake Michigan just south of Manistee.

It's an eyesore to lakeshore residents in Manistee County's Filer Township. When the wind blows a certain way, the dark water moves toward shore, discouraging swimmers from taking a dip. State officials insist the water is safe for human contact, but they acknowledge the color is a major problem.

And the remedy? Few people seem satisfied with it.

The state wants Packaging Corporation of America to move the pipeline to downtown Manistee, releasing more than 4 million gallons a day into the channel that connects Lake Michigan to Manistee Lake. A final decision is expected within days.

The rationale: The channel already has a dark complexion.

"I don't think anybody will be able to see it. People don't believe us," said Jeff Fischer of the Department of Environmental Quality, or DEQ. "It will be mixed so thoroughly, it won't change the color of the channel. This was the best option."

Not to folks at Manistee City Hall, nor downtown businesses or some area fishermen.

Manistee, like other northern Michigan towns, embraces tourism. It has spent millions of dollars sprucing up the banks of the downtown channel. Visitors can stroll the 1.5-mile "riverwalk" almost to the mouth of Lake Michigan.

Small cruise ships regularly pull into the channel, unloading people who buy souvenirs and eat in restaurants.

"Fifteen years ago, behind the buildings on River Street, it was a mess. This is a tremendous improvement," said Dave Yarnell, director of the Manistee Area Chamber of Commerce, which is staying neutral on the controversy.

Despite the DEQ's assurances, critics fear the treated wastewater will spoil the channel, perhaps by staining boats or releasing an unpleasant odor. Anglers wonder if salmon could become confused during their annual migration to the Manistee and Little Manistee rivers.

"If there is a problem with discharge, deal with it," Mayor Richard Mack told the DEQ at a hearing that drew more than 100 people in late April. "Relocation into the Manistee River does not solve this problem."

Packaging Corp. of America, known to the locals as PCA, makes corrugated board and liner board for boxes. With about 300 workers, it is the largest industrial employer in Manistee County.

This is not a dispute over whether PCA has been covertly discharging wastewater; the state has issued permits for years. The company releases treated water as well as treated liquids collected from a local landfill.

But as a condition of that permit, the water cannot be drastically discolored. Filer Township Supervisor Dana Schindler said people were demanding changes in the 1970s, but the state declined to act. There are public beaches in the area of the discharge.

"We used to take a raft 15 feet from shore, throw a stone and dive for it in crystal-clear Lake Michigan," she said. "Now we can't see the bottom unless there's an absolute calm day, but you're still not seeing sand. The permit has been violated for many years."

Fill and her husband, Larry, are Grand Rapids-area residents who have owned property on the lake for 10 years. She said they sent letters and pictures to the DEQ in Cadillac but got no action.

They turned their attention to the agency's headquarters in Lansing and showed photos to Sikkema, the Kent County Republican, who is chairman of the Senate Natural Resources Committee.

"His jaw dropped," Judy Fill said.

"No one is going to send someone to swim or boat in it," Sikkema said. "Discharges that negatively impact recreation uses of the lake are a violation of the Clean Water Act. I brought that to the attention of DEQ."

PCA declined to speak to The Press for this story. The company has looked at ways to remove the dark color from the water "but it would be a burdensome expense and would probably cause them to close down the plant," said Fischer of the DEQ.

The company has told state regulators that relocating the pipe is "an acceptable option," he said.

No one wants to offend PCA. Manistee opposes placing the pipe downtown, but it calls the company a "valued ... corporate citizen."

The Filer Township Board describes PCA as the area's "economic stronghold," although it is pleased that the state is finally doing something.

"I'm not interested in the economic demise of PCA," Schindler said. "Neither am I interested in the degradation of any body of water anywhere."

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