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Great Lakes Article:

Sewage from Michigan under scrutiny

Water showing improvement as Door County investigates E. coli

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 Tuesday.

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 said.

Efforts to reach officials with the Menominee treatment plant or city officials in that community were unsuccessful Tuesday.

Several possibilities

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 health officials.

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 coliform colonies.

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.

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