At more than 1,600 sites across the state of Michigan, you can’t drink the groundwater. Well, you could, but it wouldn’t be safe or legal.
These sites are properties, groups of properties, and sometimes entire cities with bans on drinking water wells.
Dave Dempsey says we're writing off our groundwater. He's a senior policy advisor with the nonprofit water law group For Love of Water (FLOW).
“If we were to treat our lakes and streams the way we’re treating groundwater, we’d have a national disgrace on our hands," he says.
Dempsey blames amendments to the state's National Resources and Environmental Protection Act passed more than two decades ago, in 1994. They made it easier to partially clean up a contaminated site, as opposed to fully. And, to deal with the remaining pollution, the law change expanded the ability to set land use restrictions. These restrictions -- sometimes known as institutional controls -- let people use these sites while keeping them from coming in contact with dangerous chemicals.
"They created standards that allowed contamination to remain in place. In many cases they didn’t have to clean it up," Dempsey says.
The most common type of restriction is a ban on drinking water wells. Other examples include (but are not limited to): no contact with the soil, extra monitoring, or even barring broad categories of use, like recreational or residential.
"A zombie rising from the grave."
Through a public records request, we've found that there are now more than 3,100 restrictions in place at more than 2,000 sites around Michigan — and those are extremely conservative estimates. The DEQ doesn't have complete records of all restrictions, and more are added every day.
The state says full cleanup isn’t always possible or practical. But Dempsey is concerned about just how common these partial cleanups have become, and about the possible unintended consequences.
"What’s kind of a like a zombie rising from the grave is these buried contaminants that are now showing up in people’s homes, in their air, specifically. That was not envisioned by the science at the time; if you left chemicals in the ground they could actually migrate up through even impervious surfaces and affect people’s health."
Dempsey is talking about a phenomenon called vapor intrusion. That’s when contamination underground seeps into buildings through the air.
Becky Resch has firsthand experience with this. She and her husband live in downtown Charlevoix. She's a schoolteacher who talks fast and laughs a lot.
She heads out her back door to point out the system she had installed to deal with the chemical vapors.
"They've got a really big one on the back of their building," she says, pointing at the neighbors' before turning to her own contraption. "They had to actually drill through the concrete, the brick, and it goes all the way down to the basement and through the basement floor, and then it goes up above the roof line so that the fan circulates it and shoots it up there."
It's not a quiet machine. "We get this whirring sound all the time," she says. "Every once in a while I'm like,'What's that noise? Oh it's that thing on the back of the house.'"
The vacuum system snaking up the side of Resch's house keeps contaminated vapors from entering her basement, where the EPA found low levels of dangerous chemicals.
Trichloroethylene (TCE) and tetrachloroethylene (PCE) plumes from several old dry cleaners and manufacturers are spread below downtown Charlevoix. It’s a federal Superfund site. In 1984-85, the EPA decided the best remedy was to let the groundwater "naturally attenuate," and in the meantime, move Charlevoix to a Lake Michigan water supply.
The site was taken off the National Priorities List in 1993. There’s a city ordinance that bans drinking water wells, and for more than a decade, those restrictions were considered adequate to protect public health.
Then, in 2011, the EPA concluded there was a vapor intrusion risk. The groundwater wasn't self-cleaning like they had anticipated it would be. They investigated further and identified previously unknown sources of contamination -- a few rogue underground storage tanks. And in 2015, officials showed up at Resch’s door to test for contaminated vapor in her home.
“It's kind of a panicky situation, and you go into that mode where that's all you hear, and you kind of freak out," she says. "We've lived here 34, 35 years, and what have we been inhaling?"
In 1985, when the EPA made its initial decision on how to deal with Charlevoix, the state of Michigan pushed back. Governor James Blanchard wanted a full cleanup. But the state eventually had to accept the EPA's decision. The next administration, under Governor John Engler, saw the 1994 amendments open the door to more partial cleanups and land use restrictions at the state level.
Thousands of sites under investigation
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality now has a list of as many as 4,000 sites to investigate for vapor intrusion.
Dan Yordanich is an environmental quality specialist with the DEQ. We asked him how many of the sites under investigation for vapor intrusion are old partial cleanup sites, currently being managed with land use restrictions. He couldn't give us a number, but he thought the phenomenon was likely.
"Any site that has hazardous substances that are volatile, vapor intrusion pathway could be a concern," he told us. “Certainly there's going to be some overlap, primarily I would definitely say at old manufacturing sites that used de-greasers. Certainly gas station sites, because petroleum hydrocarbons are volatile. A lot of our underground storage tank sites, you know, have restrictive covenants on the properties, and there may or may not be a vapor intrusion risk at those sites.”
We requested records of enforcement actions, where the DEQ forced polluters to pay for cleanups, to give us an idea of whether that's happening less since the law change in 1994. But we were quoted a $15,000 charge for that data.
Yordanich says that land use restrictions might have led to less cleanup. But he still thinks they’re a good thing.
"The use of institutional controls has helped to inform the public and property owners about environmental hazards associated with properties and within their communities, and I think that's increased awareness of potential hazards. That's what I'd like to emphasize," he says.
Yordanich also told us that another law change that took effect in 2015 actually broadened the types of restrictions available.
FLOW’s Dave Dempsey thinks leaving contamination in place opens us up to long-term risks.
“Best analogy I can make is as though we left hundreds of time bombs in the ground and decided we weren’t going to defuse them," says Dempsey. "And they’re all out there now and they’re starting to blow up in our faces.”
He wants to see the law changed to make it mandatory to clean up contaminated groundwater.
You can find land use restrictions in your area using the DEQ’s environmental mapper.
On Thursday, we’ll hear from a retired DEQ staffer who voiced her opposition to these practices decades ago.
Mark Brush contributed reporting to this story.