Trouble in Paradise: Future of contaminated site uncertain
Paradise, Michigan got its name for, well, obvious reasons. It’s home to Tahquamenon Falls and Whitefish Bay – two Upper Peninsula gems.
But there’s trouble in Paradise - a quiet, oozing kind of trouble. Residents say a legacy dump site has been ignored for decades. The site is slowly releasing toxic chemicals into Lake Superior, and there doesn't appear to be a plan to stop it.
Bridget Nodurft’s graduating class of 1969 only had seven people.
“Everybody in my family was valedictorian - six kids,” Nodurft said, laughing.
She saw her first movie when she was 19, and she said seeing New York City for the first time was a culture shock. But Nodurft said it was a good way to grow up, literally in Paradise.
“You do approach your adulthood in innocence, but I feel like I just fully lost my innocence after learning so much about environmental contamination,” Nodurft said.
The contamination she’s referencing is on a now-empty plot next to the Paradise community center in Whitefish Township.
Nodurft said she caught frogs and played in the sand here as a child, but looking back, the memory is tainted.
“I thought I had a really nice place here,” Nodurft said. "God knows what we were exposed to."
And it does appear to be a really nice place - the site overlooks Lake Superior. A steep sand dune goes right down to the shore, but buried just below the surface is an old unlined landfill.
The dump goes back nearly a hundred years - when the Michigan Department of Transportation excavated the property in 1923 for sand and left a gaping pit.
The Chippewa County Road Commission took ownership of the pit, two decades later. They reportedly used it to dispose of road refuse and used oil, and community members said the commission also encouraged the public to help fill the pit.
The dump was shut down by the state in 1975, covered up, and essentially forgotten.
But by that time, people had dumped their vehicles, household appliances, car batteries, paint cans, and drums of creosote into the pit. Nodurft said there’s even an RV buried somewhere below our feet – and last year, corroded barrel lids with poison warning labels were discovered.
The property is speckled with test wells that are detecting high levels of mercury, arsenic, cyanide, chromium, lead, and other toxins draining from the site, into the lake.
A 2022 letter from the Bay Mills Indian Community expressed concern that leaking contamination in Lake Superior could be violating an 1836 treaty that recognizes tribal rights to hunt, fish, and gather.
"Although funding opportunities exist to remove this historic and constant source of pollution into Lake Superior, we are disappointed to learn that the clean-up and remediation of these pollutants has seen little to no movement," wrote Whitney Gravelle, President of the Bay Mills Indian Community.
The letter and the discovery of the corroded barrels lids sparked state officials to request assistance from the Environmental Protection Agency.
The EPA is now testing the site, and in the next few months, the agency will announce if it intends to get involved in remediation after completing an assessment report. The report contains certain metrics that are used to gauge if the site qualifies for EPA cleanup.
Brian Kelly, with EPA Region 5, said the response team could find no evidence of drums with hazardous materials - besides the lids.
"We're still investigating, but I think this is more of..." Kelly said "I mean, there's suitable trash heap that's there. I know that people are very concerned about that, but I'm not sure [the site is] going to qualify."
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy said some contaminants are above state criteria levels, but the dump site overall, is “low risk.”
Sydney Hewson is the district environmental manager with the EGLE Remediation and Redevelopment Division in Marquette.In an email to WCMU, she denied the claim that EGLE's approach to the site involves "natural attenuation" - where contaminants are left to break down naturally.
"We are simply not pursuing anymore state funded work because our past investigations have shown the site risk is low, and we must allocate limited money to mitigate sites with prevalent higher risk," Hewson said.
Robert Laitinen is the manager of the Chippewa County Road Commission, which still owns the property.
Laitinen said some people are "trying to make it sound far more sinister than what it is." He said commission is doing its part to address contamination from leaking underground storage tanks.
“We're working and doing everything that we can within our budget constraints, to get this site cleaned up," Laitinen said. "We’ve spent a lot of money to do so.”
The tanks were removed decades ago, and more than 20 feet of contaminated soil were excavated off the property. The road commission is still working on a report and cleanup plan, tied to the tanks.
“As it relates to the old dump site, it hasn't been an item of concern by EGLE," Laitinen said. "They've issued no notice of violation and no demands upon anybody that it be cleaned up.”
Laitinen said the dump isn’t all that different from thousands of other contaminated sites in Michigan. He points to an old gas station up the road that hasn’t received the same public attention.
“And definitely we’re supportive of cleaning up the [dump] site," Laitinen said "We're just unwilling to foot that bill 100% out of our pocket.”
Kelli Conway owns a home in Paradise, and she’s part of the Whitefish Township environmental committee.
“See a problem, fix a problem. I don't understand this, push the paper around, appease people, make phone calls...” Conway said.
Conway learned of the contamination in 2019 after surveying the property for a potential township park.
“That gets this case closed - the township takes over this contaminated property," Conway said. "...How does that clean anything up?”
And Conway said she knows there are thousands of contaminated sites -
“-I understand, but look at that beautiful water and think of everything that surrounds that beautiful water," Conway said.
She references a massive boost in the proposed budget to the state’s environmental department. A quarter of the $1.3 billion budget is set aside for cleaning up contaminated sites. Conway said she just hopes Paradise won’t be left behind.
"This isn't just for Whitefish Township," Conway said, "it's for that body of water.”
Copyright 2023 WCMU. To see more, visit WCMU.