Sewage from Michigan under scrutiny
Water showing improvement as Door County investigates
By TOM HELD
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
Last Updated: Aug. 7, 2002
Sturgeon Bay - A sewage discharge from a Michigan
wastewater treatment plant and dumping from boats are
possible sources of the E. coli contamination that forced
four Door County beaches to close, a health official said
Rhonda Kolberg, director of the Door County Public Health
Department, said she had talked to operators of the Menominee,
Mich., wastewater treatment plant about a discharge of
untreated sewage during a heavy storm in early July. The
plant is almost directly across Green Bay from the vacation
communities that stretch along the east shore of Green
Bay, the west side of the Door County peninsula.
None of the beaches on the Lake Michigan side of the
peninsula has shown abnormal levels of E. coli.
As of Tuesday, beaches in three towns along the east
shore of Green Bay were closed to swimmers because of
high concentrations of E. coli bacteria.
Kolberg said she could not directly link the contamination
at the four Door County beaches to the discharge across
the bay. The timing and geography, however, warrant a
closer look, she said.
From the information she gathered, Kolberg said, the
discharge in Menominee occurred July 8, when a heavy rainstorm
pounded the city and the treatment plant took in about
10 times the amount of water it does on a normal day.
Visitors swimming in the water off Nicolet Bay Beach started
becoming sick with severe, flu-like symptoms caused by
E. coli about six days later, on July 14, Kolberg said.
"That's just something we have to take a look at," Kolberg
Efforts to reach officials with the Menominee treatment
plant or city officials in that community were unsuccessful
Greg Kleinheinz, an associate professor of microbiology
at the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, said a large discharge
of untreated sewage into the bay had the potential to
cause the contamination turning up on Door County beaches.
Boats dumping their stored waste into the lake, leaking
septic systems and droppings from the flocks of gulls
and other birds roosting along the shore also could cause
the unhealthy concentrations of waste, he said.
Kleinheinz said the wind and currents would have to be
reviewed to determine whether the waste discharged in
Michigan could have moved east.
In June, Menominee officials closed three beaches in
that city because of E. coli contamination. In the days
before the closings, the treatment plant pumped waste
into Green Bay because heavy rains pushed the plant beyond
its capacity on three consecutive days.
Whatever its cause, the contamination of the beaches
along Door County's bay shore is unprecedented, Kolberg
said. Nicolet Bay Beach in Peninsula State Park and Fish
Creek Beach, both in Fish Creek; Frank E. Murphy County
Park beach in Egg Harbor; and Otumba Park beach in Sturgeon
Bay had never been closed previously, she said.
The dirty water problem is causing some disappointment
among visitors and some nervousness among the business
owners who count on the area's natural beauty to attract
tourists and fill their cash registers.
On Tuesday, however, visitors seemed undaunted by the
beach closings, filling the resorts and hotels across
the vacation area.
Karen Raymore, executive director of the Door County
Chamber of Commerce, said the area offers enough diverse
activities to keep tourists motoring up state Highways
42 and 57, despite the warnings on the beaches.
"I'm not hearing any panic, and I'm talking to my members
all the time," Raymer said. "We're not in calamity stage
by any means."
A change in the weather and some better test results
also give reason for optimism among business owners and
A water sample taken Monday from the beach at Peninsula
State Park contained 126 colonies of E. coli per 100 milliliters
of water. That's below the threshold of 235 colonies per
100 milliliters set by the U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency. A sample from last week registered 2,419 fecal
Two consecutive days of safe readings will be required
to reopen the beach, park Manager Thomas Blackwood said.
Results of tests taken Tuesday would not be available
until today or possibly Thursday, Blackwood said.
Campers planning to visit the park have not canceled
reservations in great numbers, but reduced visitation
to the beach area has hurt concessionaires, he said.
"We're sending people to other parks in the state park
system," Blackwood said of referrals to Newport State
Park near Ellison Bay and Whitefish Dunes State Park in
Sturgeon Bay. "They're still in Door County."
Kolberg said all four beaches could reopen after samples
taken on two successive days fall below the bacteria standard.
Water samples are being gathered daily at the four beaches
and weekly from the other public beaches in Door County.
That means warning signs could be removed from the beaches
by late this week, if the test results show the coliform
bacteria levels have dropped.
Some still swimming
Josh Barta and cousin Cole Barta chose not to wait on
Tuesday. They scooted past the warning signs at Nicolet
Bay Beach and splashed into the blue water.
"We only get to come up here once a year, and we're not
going to miss this part of it," said Josh Barta of Hudson.
"We've been playing football games in the water here for
more than a week . . . If we were going to get sick, we
would have been sick already."
The Bartas clearly were unaffected by the bacteria in
the water. More than 60 other visitors, however, suffered
severe diarrhea, vomiting and muscle aches after ingesting
the contaminated water.
Amy Stees, a public health nurse, said the intense symptoms
lasted 24 to 48 hours and affected a range of people,
from a 16-month-old to a 57-year-old. It was interviews
with the sick visitors that helped Stees pinpoint the
contaminated surf as the source of the bacteria.
Katherine Mayer, a visitor from Cleveland, took no chances
at the county beach south of Egg Harbor. She watched her
relatives playing football on the grass while thinking
about the swim she had to forgo.
"I was real disappointed about the state park (beach)
being closed," Mayer said. "I wanted to ride my bike into
the park, get an ice cream at the stand and go for a swim
at Nicolet Bay.
"It's not quite the same without the swim."
Jesse Garza of the Journal Sentinel staff contributed
to this report from Milwaukee.