Lake's 'black scar'
Monday, June 10,
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
"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
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
"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
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
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
"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