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White Lake could become Michigan’s first to come off U.S-Canada list of pollution hot spots

An inland lake north of Muskegon is expected to reach a major milestone this year. Officials anticipate White Lake will be removed from a list of the most-polluted places surrounding the Great Lakes this year.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, most of the pollution in White Lake was caused by a chemical company that dumped waste into the water.

The Occidental (Hooker) Chemical Company property was the primary source of contamination. Discharges from the site resulted in White Lake becoming polluted with chloroform, tetrachloride, and various volatile organic and chemical compounds. High levels of PCBs and chromium were also found. Agricultural runoff contributed to up to 97% of the phosphorus pollution in White Lake.

Jon Allan is director of Michigan’s Office of the Great Lakes. He says White Lake is one of 14 in the state included on the Areas of Concern list. Efforts to clean them up have been underway for almost 30 years.

“Most of the legacy of contamination in many of these places ends up in our rivers, our harbors, the river mouths and in sediments. Removing contamination from sediments is some of the hardest stuff and the most expensive stuff that we have to do,” Allan said.

Only two AOC sites have been delisted in the U.S. and only three in Canada.

“White Lake is fortunate and is kind of coming up first on the list. Some contamination in some other sites just remains a little more stubborn or complicated or expensive. But we’re seeing progress in all of our communities,” Allan said.

He says money from the federal Great Lakes Restoration program has played a big part in cleaning up these sites recently.

Jeff Auch, executive director of the Muskegon Conservation District, says the $2.1 million White Lake got from the program three years ago was a big help.

He says the public advisory committee for the site has been active in raising awareness of the work that needed to be done. He says they also were good about having studies completed about what remedial work needed to be done so that when grant money was available, they were already prepared to apply for it.

“We still have (pollution) issues,” Auch said. “But coming off the list means the industrial past has been officially mitigated.”

The official designation may take until the end of the year. It needs approval from the state, then the U.S. EPA and then at the international level.

But Auch says they’re likely to throw a celebration this summer. “Considering it’s been a 20-year process, I think it’s well worth it to celebrate,” he said.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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