by Gary Wilson
Sometimes it seems you just can’t catch a break.
Consider White Lake on Michigan’s Lake Michigan shore.
For decades White Lake has been designated an official toxic “Area of Concern” because of the legacy pollutants left by the chemical industry. Efforts to clean the lake inched along over the years as money was scarce or nonexistent. But local concerned citizens continued to push for remediation and it now appears the finish line is in sight.
The Obama administration’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative has pumped a few million dollars into the White Lake area and those close to the issues say it could get a clean bill of health in a few years.
John Perrecone coordinates cleanup of toxic sites from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes office in Chicago.
He spoke with pride about the progress at White Lake when we talked recently. He didn’t just recite facts and figures, he described what’s happening on the ground in rich language and asked if I had visited the gem that White Lake is. (I have, and for the record I have close relatives living in the area). He clearly has been engaged.
I received a similar glowing report from John Riley at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality.
Riley said he is “intent on delisting White Lake as a toxic Area of Concern” and went on to tell me how the region’s cleanup fits well with the Pure Michigan ad campaign designed to attract tourists and the dollars they would bring.
White Lake’s Star Rising… or Is It?
White Lake’s star appears to be rising. The lake will be clean and those coveted vacationers will continue to visit and hopefully increase their frequency as the area moves past its toxic legacy.
Or, perhaps not. A potential new problem is now receiving widespread attention.
Last week the the Natural Resources Defense Council and the National Disease Cluster Alliance released a report that included White Lake as a potential disease cluster area based on an investigation in progress.
The group’s report is part of an analysis that includes 42 locations across the country.
In White Lake, local citizens with support from the Muskegon County Health Department are gathering information that could help serve as the basis to determine if a disease cluster exists.
But the NRDC / NDCA report doesn’t sit well with some in the White Lake area.
Tanya Cabala is a long-time area resident and environmental advocate. She was also the founding chair of the local citizen council that has been working to get White Lake off the toxic hotspot list.
Cabala takes issue with the report saying, “the local health investigation has recently been mistakenly taken as evidence that our community is a “cancer cluster.” For the record, we are NOT.”
Cabala faults the report for its lack of clarity which can lead to “mistakes of interpretation.” For its part, the report acknowledges that identifying disease clusters is complex and investigations are many times inconclusive.
Neither the EPA’s Perrecone nor Michigan DEQ’s Riley were willing to say much about the disease cluster report. Suddenly bureaucratic protocol seemed to take precedent.
Asked if the report would cause the EPA to expedite cleanup of White Lake Perrecone said “without a strong, confirmed epidemiological study by a responsible agency, EPA would take no action beyond the work in progress.”
Interestingly, Riley deferred to local citizen groups to comment.
What ever happened to precaution?
The NRDC’s Josh Mogerman said he understands that dealing with issues like this can be “uncomfortable and difficult” for local communities. But he commended Muskegon County residents for “taking the laudable step of collecting data and working with health officials to get an answer.”
Using complexity to describe disease clusters and remediation of toxic sites like White Lake and others that dot the Great Lakes is a gross understatement.
But one thing is simple and within our grasp. That’s the ability to accelerate the cleanup of contaminated sites.
The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative that funded the recent work on White Lake can make significant progress at other toxic legacy sites. Congress just approved $300 million for the work in 2011.
But the initiative has to focus effort and money on what’s important and real to those who live near these toxic hotspots.
And that’s not measuring, monitoring and studying which soaked up way too much of the first allocation of Great Lakes Restoration Initiative money.
If you want examples of soft expenditures compared to the need to restore toxic sites, check the list of projects in Illinois that were awarded money in 2010.
Every federal, state and local agency that remotely touches the Great Lakes shouldn’t be allocated money for their pet project.
We need to have the courage to prioritize clean up of the toxic stews that exist in the region where people actually live and work.
Then maybe we can prevent future disease clusters.