The City of Charlevoix is known for its beaches, lighthouse and fishermen. The Anishinaabe call it “Zhingwak Ziibing” or “Pine River.”
It’s less well known as a superfund site.
Pollution was first discovered in the city’s groundwater in 1981. The city quickly switched to Lake Michigan drinking water, as legal restrictions were put on the groundwater.
After the switch, state and federal agencies said the pollution was handled.
Decades later, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency went back and found they have more cleanup to do. One woman could lose her family home in the process. Charlevoix’s residents are trying to make sense of a problem that many thought was already solved.
Barbara Godwin-Chulick bought her two-story building in downtown Charlevoix in 1980. She says it was perfect.
“It had the commercial frontage which grandfathered in that I could have a shop and a studio for my pottery,” says Chulick. “I could develop apartments that would be income property, because as a potter you're usually not making a lot of money. So, I felt like I was really doing pretty well.”
She knew there had been a dry cleaning business in her building, but she didn’t think anything of it at the time.
“A year later, it was a knock on the door from the local health department guy and a guy from the DNR,” she says. “That began almost 40 years of not knowing what was gonna happen next.”
Officials told Chulick that the dry cleaner had disposed of a cancer-causing chemical known as PCE (short for tetrachloroethylene) on the property. The soil and groundwater underneath her home were contaminated.
Now, in the next few years, Chulick has to decide whether or not to demolish the building where she, her daughter and granddaughters live.
This should do the trick
It all started in a pre-regulation era, when several dry cleaners and a tool shop in Charlevoix used and dumped industrial solvents on their properties.
In the 80s, plumes of PCE and its chemical cousin, TCE, were found in Charlevoix’s groundwater. The city’s municipal well, contaminated with TCE, was declared a Superfund site.
The EPA built the city a roughly three-million-dollar plant so they could get drinking water from Lake Michigan. Laws were made prohibiting drinking water wells in the area. Charlevoix was taken off the Superfund National Priorities List in 1993.
Michigan Gov. James Blanchard initially disagreed with how the EPA was handling Charlevoix. He wanted them to treat the groundwater, but he eventually accepted their decision not to.
The PCE under Chulick’s home and other source properties was considered separate from the TCE in the city’s well. The state of Michigan ended up doing treatment at those sites, but it only reduced the level of contamination.
“They did some kind of treatment,” says Chulick. “[They] said to us ‘Well, this should do the trick. We will keep coming back and checking on it and taking more samples.’”
She had to trust that, because moving was never an option for her. She raised her family in the building.
We didn't know
When Charlevoix was removed from the National Priorities List, scientists said the groundwater should self-clean within 50 years. It didn't.
Then came advances in science. We learned that pollution left in the ground can still harm people, even if they don’t touch soil or use the groundwater.
Toxic chemicals can come into buildings, in the form of vapors, through cracks in foundations and basements. It’s called vapor intrusion, and the EPA detected it in Charlevoix.
They’ve equipped 16 buildings in town, including Chulick’s, with vacuum systems that keep vapors from entering.
They’ve also found more contamination, including a pool of PCE 16 feet beneath Chulick’s home. They want to tear down her building, compensate her for its value, remove all of that contaminated soil and give her back a vacant lot.
She’s worried she won’t be given enough money to build a new home and worries about her family’s health after they lived on the site for decades.
“This whole situation, I feel like I wanna just do it all over again,” says Chulick. “I wish I could have been way more proactive instead of feeling invaded.”
Chulick could decide not to have her home demolished, but then cleanup would take longer. The pollution under her building affects her neighbors.
Nobody from the EPA was available for an interview, despite numerous requests from IPR.
Nic Dawson is a project manager for the site with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. They’re working closely with the EPA.
He says that, yeah, back in the 90s, they didn’t know about vapor intrusion and they couldn’t find this other contamination.
“As soon as we knew about that and were privy to any issues, we took immediate action,” says Dawson. “That's happened on other sites too. Once you know about it and the technology's there, we go after it.”
More work to do
The EPA’s new proposed cleanup for all of Charlevoix will cost more than $15 million. In addition to Chulick’s home, they want to demolish two other commercial buildings downtown in the next three years.
In November of 2019, a 30-day public comment period opened on the EPA’s new cleanup plan. According to Mark Heydlauff, Charlevoix’s city manager, there was lots of confusion about it at a public meeting in December.
“The sense I have is that this is a thing that everybody thought was cleaned up 30 years ago,” he says.
Heydlauff calls the EPA’s communication with residents before that meeting “lackluster.”
“They cited at their first public meeting that sometimes the mail doesn't work well in northern Michigan, which I consider to be a slap in the face to all of us up here,” he says.
Heydlauff wrote a letter to the EPA urging them to keep public comment open until this January so Charlevoix residents could “more thoughtfully engage.”
“I had very good conversations with Senator Stabenow's office and Senator Bergman's office,” says Heydlauff. “Thankfully the EPA extended the public comment period on into, here in January. I think it’s closed now.”
The agency also held an open house in January.
Local pastor Greg Briggs has been dealing with the EPA — they’re testing in his church. He says they were helpful and answered his questions. He also thinks they were responsive to pushback they got at the meeting.
“Part of it is just the natural shock of the community saying "we thought this was taken care of a decade ago,” says Briggs. “You can never adequately talk enough about something when it's like, no, we have more work to do.”
He thinks it’s a hard thing to talk about, partially because the town’s image is so tied up with beautiful bodies of water.
“It's hard when a place is viewed as being so ideal, to hear that it's not as perfect as we want it to be,” he says.
Briggs says the EPA encouraged the formation of a citizens’ group. Barb Chulick says now, at least, she feels less alone. She still hasn’t made a final decision on her house.
“I'm really just so grateful that this is being addressed and getting handled,” says Chulick. “Finally. FINALLY.”
The EPA says if they can execute their cleanup plan the way they want, the groundwater should completely recover in 35 years.
In the meantime, if you’re thinking of a visit: Charlevoix’s drinking water comes from Lake Michigan and is safe. The EPA, the state and the local health department monitor buildings for vapor intrusion, and if they find it, they install systems to protect their occupants.