$80M and decades of effort rid Muskegon Lake of its industrial toxicity
MUSKEGON, MI – Two guys from the Michigan Department of Natural Resources came to town in the early 1980s and asked Ray Grennan to take them to the shore of Muskegon Lake.
And so Grennan, who was chair of the Muskegon County Board of Commissioners, took them to one of the ugliest spots on the shoreline – one that was piled so high with junk and debris that actually seeing the lake from it was impossible.
“We had piles and piles of iron, steel, oil on the ground — just a horrible mess,” Grennan told MLive/The Muskegon Chronicle recently. “I parked the car and I said, ‘This is it gentlemen.’ They looked around and they … said, ‘This can’t be. We can’t be allowing this in any community.’ They were really appalled.”
A couple years later, the county acquired that property and after 12 years of cleanup efforts it reopened as Heritage Landing, a park, festival grounds and cruise ship dock.
Heritage Landing stands today as a testament to the comeback of one of Lake Michigan’s most busy and now, beautiful inlet lakes. It was the site chosen for a press conference by federal and state officials in May who declared that more than $80 million in cleanup efforts had for the most part concluded.
They announced that Muskegon Lake would soon be removed as an “Area of Concern” – a message of hope for other communities that dedication, money and carefully planned cleanup strategies can restore even the most polluted lakes.
“It demonstrates that cleaning up the Great Lakes is possible,” said Kathy Evans, who as a program manager with the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission applied for many of the grants that funded the cleanup.
“There are a lot of places that are a lot worse than Muskegon,” she said. “It can be done.”
The lake had been abused for more than a century, starting with the lumber mills that dumped sawdust and lumber debris in the lake, followed by foundries and heavy industry that dumped pollutants and fill as government officials turned their heads.
But in the early 1970s, environmental activists like Grennan began organized protests of the expansion of polluting industry along the lake. As foundries and factories began closing, the victims of globalization and advancements in manufacturing, Muskegon was left with a mess to clean up.
“Everyone used the lake as a dump…they didn’t give a damn,” said Grennan, who helped form the Save Our Shoreline group in the 1970s.
And so, the hard work started.
The lake’s issues were many-fold. There were the industrial pollutants, like mercury, lead, oil and PCBs that contaminated the sediment and the tiny organisms on which fish feed.
There was excessive fill that replaced wetlands needed to sustain wildlife with hardened shorelines. Gone were natural beaches and in their stead were seawalls and deep drop offs.
Sanitary and storm sewers also ran into the lake, contributing to the toxic waters that would turn various unnatural colors.
Tributaries fed by polluted groundwater in the lake’s 52-square-mile watershed also brought toxins into the lake, through storm drains, agricultural runoff and leaking petroleum storage facilities.
One of the early vast improvements in the lake’s quality was the construction in 1973 of the Muskegon County wastewater management system that replaced various municipal treatment plants. Among those had been the city of Muskegon’s that dumped minimally treated sewage into the lake.
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Focused cleanup of the lake didn’t begin until 2005 with the first of four major projects that removed 200,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment, with the last one completed in late 2020. Numerous other restoration projects spanning from 2010 to 2020 restored the shoreline, pulled old lumber from the lake bottom and restored 134 acres of habitat.
Funding the projects had been a challenge until the establishment in 2010 of the federal Great Lakes Restorative Initiative.
For the most part, industries weren’t held accountable for their messes. Michigan’s “Polluter Pay Law” let polluters off the hook if they went bankrupt, dissolved, were sold to other firms or simply didn’t have the money for cleanups. While that helped industries escape accountability, it also was helpful in getting sites redeveloped more quickly, said Evans, who now works for the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership.
Some companies, including Teledyne, which had a sprawling manufacturing plant on the lake near downtown, and Michigan Steel, which acquired the West Michigan Steel/Westran industrial site on the lake, have contributed, Evans said. Others contributed to the community in different ways, she said.
“A lot of those folks are probably great philanthropists and funded a lot of great community opportunities for art and culture and all of that, which is great,” Evans said. “The investment was made more that way than actually cleaning up. And I don’t know if that’s because you feel like if you paid for it, you were responsible for it.”
Fortunately for Muskegon, Grand Valley State University chose the city over Holland and Grand Haven for the location of its Annis Water Resources Institute in 2001. Al Steinman, director of the institute, said that at the time the community was most interested in landing institutions of higher learning as it was moving away from its heavy industrial past.
“They knew they were evolving from a gray factory, foundry kind of existence to something new, and having a research institute here would be a boon,” Steinman told MLive. “The fact that we could also work on the problems facing the lake and hopefully be delisted as an area of concern… was secondary.”
But for Steinman, the lake offered an opportunity to really make a difference. It wasn’t long before he began working with Evans to write grant proposals.
“We developed a partnership almost immediately,” Steinman said. “(Evans) could take advantage of our research expertise, we have a funding stream as a function of that and gave them the information, the scientifically justifiable, defensible information, that they needed to present to the (state) and the EPA.”
Even still, it took 15 years and creative financing to accomplish the cleanups the lake needed.