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Michigan is out of money to clean up polluted sites, Antrim County decides to help out 

A pot of money used to clean up abandoned pollution sites in Michigan is just about gone. So in Antrim County, where a plume of contamination threatens drinking water, commissioners recently decided to spend $250,000 on the problem to partially match $750,000 the state offered in return.

It's a deal that could signal a new approach to environmental clean up for the state.

“We’ve been told for the last couple years from our legislature that there will be nothing done on the pollution funding until the road issue is taken care of in the State of Michigan,” explains Mike Crawford, the Antrim County board chairman.

The money will be used to assure homes near Cedar River will have clean water even if pollution left from the 1950s contaminates their well water. A plume of the chemical compound trichloroethylene has been moving a few hundred feet a year toward the resort community around Shanty Creek.

Having local governments spend money to clean up so-called orphan sites is not unheard of in Michigan, but a top official in Lansing couldn’t think of any other projects underway where it is happening.

Dean Branson with the Three Lakes Association in Antrim County thinks the state would like to see it happen more often.

“I think this is a new public policy concept,” says Branson. “They want to work with the communities that want to work with the state.”

The commission vote to write the check in Antrim County was not unanimous and Branson says getting local buy-in is tough, even when the threat of toxins is immediate.

There is plenty of work to be done. There are almost 300 contaminated sites in Michigan that are orphaned and are considered a high priority, meaning they threaten community health in some way. The state is working on less than 100 of these.

Department of Environmental Quality Division Chief Bob Wagner says that leaves about 200 sites they can’t address.

“We aren’t really starting any new projects,” Wagner says. “Because we would be making a commitment that we would not be able to fund in the future.”

Michigan issued environmental bonds with voter approval in 1988 and 1998 and those provided $750 million for clean up statewide. No new bond proposal is in the works.

That might leave officials in Antrim County wondering where the next $4 million will come from to address their problems. That is the additional amount, beyond what was recently approved, they expect to need in five to 10 years to provide safe drinking water for all homes at Shanty Creek.

Cleaning up the plume of trichloroethylene left by Wickes Manufacturing is financially impossible. It is more than six miles long and believed to total 13 trillion gallons of contaminated water. Treating so much water would cost billions of dollars.

There may be a way to treat some parts of the plume. A meeting of stakeholders to discuss these issues is set for Friday, June 26 at Shanty Creek. It’s at 11 a.m. in the Cedar River Lodge.

Peter Payette is the Executive Director of Interlochen Public Radio.