It all comes down to mercury
By Anne Stanton 9/28/09
Some day, an ambitious reporter will write a story about Bay Harbor, a luxurious resort and golf course that emerged from the detritus of an old cement plant.
The book would no doubt touch on the backdoor intertwining of politics and money, but this weeks chapter in Express will focus on how key players are trying to find a way to locally dispose of water contaminated by the mountains of buried cement kiln dust.
Each day, CMS Energy, an early partner in the resort, collects 200,000 gallons of leachate at Bay Harbor Resort and nearby East Park. (Still under study is exactly how much of the contaminated water still runs into Little Traverse Bay).
The company is now looking in earnest to find a way to get rid of the leachate in Petoskey, rather than trucking it to Traverse City and Johannesburg, a tiny town near Gaylord.
But first, a recap of recent progress. The beach at East Park reopened this summer in a ceremony that drew both protesters and celebrants of the nearly $10 million clean-up effort. In July, there were no pH readings above the level of nine along the entire shoreline. In August, there was just one reading that exceeded the 9.0 level, and that was in an isolated area west of the golf course, said CMS Energy spokesman Tim Petroskey. (When the pH is above 9.0, fish have trouble getting oxygen from water.)
And more good news. Water samples taken in April did not detect the presence of dioxins, furans or PCBs; that issue was raised after a U.S. Coast Guard report revealed an eye-witness account of hazardous waste burial from 1990 to 1992. Theres a chance that the samples werent taken from where the waste was buried, but activists are no longer pursuing that point for legal purposes.
Now heres the news that doesnt surprise anyone. The leachate samples showed the presence of five chemicals that exceeded drinking water standards, including arsenic, vanadium, molybdenum, iron and nickel.
But the most troublesome statistic is mercury. Samples, provided by CMS Energy, show mercury levels up to 900 times higher than whats safe for fish (called aquatic toxicity). The standard for discharging mercury into a body of water is very tight1.3 parts per trillion. In fact, its far stricter than for drinking water, which allows 2,000 parts per trillion.
Thats because mercury bio-accumulates in fish, which people obviously eat. Mercury levels have been on the rise in the Great Lakes, as more from coal combustion is emitted into the atmosphere. In the last decade, health officials have learned more about the devastating effects of mercury, especially on babies born to pregnant women who eat fish. The mercury flows through the mothers bloodstream and ultimately settles into the brain of the fetus. Studies, including one paid for by the National Institute of Environmental Health and Sciences and the Environment and Climate Research Program in Europe, show that children exposed to mercury in utero suffer from attention deficit disorder, a reduced IQ by as much as 24 points, and impaired memory and speaking abilities.
CMS Energy, an early partner in the development of Bay Harbor Resort, has spent $90 million to capture and safely dispose of the leachate, and has put another $177 million into reserve. (No other organization or company has contributed to the effort, including wealthy developer David V. Johnson, the brainchild of Bay Harbor Resort).
Currently the Beeland Group (which is entirely owned by CMS Energy) is trucking 40 percent of the leachate to the Traverse Citys Regional Waste Water Treatment Plant. The most heavily contaminated goes to Johannesburg because the waste water treatment plant cant handle it.
Over the last several years, CMS has also planned to dispose of the leachate in an injection well in Alba to save money.
Friends of the Jordan River, Star Township and Antrim County have fought the plan in court, worried that the leachate would pose a danger to the multitude of rivers near the proposed injection well (CMS currently neutralizes the leachate to a normal pH level, but does not remove the toxins before transfer. Trucks would have to cross 20 freshwater creeks and nine miles of wetlands to get to the Alba injection well).
Then, on August 24, CMS unexpectedly asked for a stay in the case last month.
We did ask for a stay concerning the well, in order to work with all the parties to see if a consensus could be reached on another solution, Petroskey said.
That could all go by the wayside if there is little progress or promise for other solution or if we still need the injection well as a backup, Petroskey said.
So what is the solution?
CMS Energy is exploring an injection well in Petoskey, but the geology doesnt look overly promising since there hasnt been a single injection well in Emmet Countys history, Petroskey said.
Another option, that weve also proposed, is to treat the water ourselves and release it to Lake Michigan. What weve proposed, and we are preparing application for, is to utilize the best available proven technology to remove mercury from the water and release it to Lake Michigan. Using the best technology out there (for removing mercury from leachate), we can reduce it from roughly 110 parts per trillion to 10 to 20 parts per trillion.
Bio-remedies have also been consideredusing plants and soil as a filtration system, but the amount of leachate is so huge, it would prove ineffective, Petroskey said.
CMS is also talking to the city about processing the leachate at the city water treatment plant, which would have to be greatly expanded to accommodate the volume of leachate. The city would also have to take in far more sludge in order to bind with the mercury before its land applied. And it would have to improve its testing capability to identify mercury to parts per trillion. CMS Energy would have to pick up the tab for the improvements, said Lee Arman, director of Petoskeys waste water treatment plant. The advantage of this is that CMS wouldnt have to obtain a new NPDES discharge permit.
Theres some history here. Prior to January of 2003,CMS was pumping leachate for treatment by the city of Petoskeys water treatment plantan arrangement that ended badly. CMS was cited with numerous DEQ violations, including failure to conduct sampling at the required frequency. The effluent also exceeded limitations for pH, mercury and lead. CMS failed to inform the city of these problems, and as a result, the citys pipes were badly corroded from the high pH levels and clogged from solids in the leachate. Moreover, CMS allowed the untreated caustic and toxic leachate to flow into Little Traverse Bay from January 3, 2004 to September 4, 2004, potentially endangering swimmers and killing all aquatic life within 10 feet of the shoreline.
Petroskey has said that CMS Energy is committed to disposing of all leachate in a safe manner. And the DEQ seems to have regained trust in CMSs ability to do the job.
Weve been working with CMS with local disposal options, and we think they all have merit, said Bob Wagner, acting assistant division chief for the DEQs Remediation and Redevelopment Division. Our message to CMS is that the Petoskey waste water treatment plant is a viable option, as well as an onsite waste water treatment plant owned and operated by CMS. The local underground disposal well has merit if it turns out to be feasible. Of the three most likely options, the most viable is to send water to the Petoskey waste water treatment plant. Its good they have several options instead of just one.
A February 2005 administrative consent order with the DEQ ordered an $8,000 civil fine. It also included orders for beach monitoring, installing collection trenches and barrier walls, water monitoring, and the removal of cement kiln dust at certain locations. Failure to perform any of the requirements incurs a penalty of $500 per violation per day.
Since CMS asked for a stay in the Alba case, news has been leaking out about dealings between the city of Petoskey and CMS Energy.
First, the EPA has published 5,000 pages of data related to the Bay Harbor Superfund site online. The data includes a map that showed that city well No. 5during times of droughtis pulling water from the golf course, where tons of cement kiln dust is buried.
In fact, the city significantly reduced pumping at the No. 5 well, at the DEQs request, to avoid drawing from the golf course area, said Brian Thurston, a district engineer for the DEQs water bureau. Petoskey resident David Clink has long worried about the proximity of the drinking water wells to the cement kiln dust piles, and has compiled vast documents at great personal expense (he forwarded the map onto dozens of journalists and politicians, including President Barack and first lady Michelle Obama). He believes the map and the No. 5 well pump reduction this summer has vindicated his concerns.
City water officials said that the watertested quarterlymeets safe water standards. Still, many city residentswho either suspect the water quality is bad or believe the water has affected their healthremain unconvinced and fill up water jugs at artesian wells in nearby Alanson and Conway.
Meanwhile, CMS Energy is talking to city officials about buying the No. 5 well, as the city will soon no longer need it. Two additional city wells that will support the new Meijer store are scheduled to come on line before next summer, Thurston said.
The reason CMS wants the well put back into action is to minimize the amount of water that flows through the cement kiln dust pile, Petroskey said.
When the well is not operating, it has no effect on the groundwater running through the (cement kiln dust) pile toward Lake Michigan. When the well is operating, less water flows through that pile. It would allow us to divert water around the pile, Petroskey said.
IMPACT ON TRAVERSE CITY
Up to $3,600 a day. Thats about how much Grand Traverse County earns for receiving up to 120,000 gallons of Bay Harbors leachate each day for processing.
If CMS is successful treating the leachate in Petoskey, that income stream will obviously disappear.
The waste water treatment plant has an advanced filtration system that sucks the waste water through a microscopic filter, screening out the mercury and the bugs that eat the pollutants. After that, its processed into fertilizer and land applied. The level of mercury at that point is well below the allowable limit of 57 milligrams per kilogram, said Scott Blair, the plant manager for CH2M Hill, a contractor that runs both the waste water treatment plant and Grand Traverse Countys septage facility.
The mercury is in that material, and its way, way below the limits to land apply, he said. Mercury is an element, and it cannot be destroyed. The only choice you have is where to put it. Putting it onto land is the correct place. You dont want it in the water where it bio-accumulates and affects the health of humans.
Thurston of the DEQ agrees, and said its doubtful that CMS would be allowed to discharge leachate above the level of 1.3 parts per trillion.
WAIT AND SEE
As this is getting sorted out, activists are taking a wait and see attitude. About 50 people attended an August 29 meeting at the Holiday Inn to air their concerns in a newly formed community involvement group. Linda Holland, a professional facilitator, ran the meeting (this effort is funded with an EPA grant).
Jack Norris, who has worked hard to stop the Alba injection well, said he heard a recent report of how algae is being used to remediate mercury.
Id like to see notions like this pursued with the same vigor theyve been fiddling with this Alba business, he said. Its good theyre not pursuing Alba, but I cant afford to go to sleep on both ears. Who knows? The case isnt done; its simply on hold. I think we have to do what we can to keep the public apprised.