Montague — For more than 30 years, the beautiful resort community along White Lake near the shore of Lake Michigan has struggled to get out from under the weight of its past. It’s a past that includes growth sparked by the arrival of the chemical industry, and the physical and psychological scars left behind.
Michigan’s Areas of Concern
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About this project
Detroit News reporter Jim Lynch and photographer Elizabeth Conley spent the past three years documenting the stories of local officials and residents in the White Lake area as they pursued delisting as an environmental area of concern.
This year, the White Lake area — along with Deer Lake in the Upper Peninsula — could become the first of 14 sites in Michigan to get out from under the designation of Area of Concern — a tag for places marked by major environmental contamination. The White Lake area includes the resort towns of Whitehall and Montague and was placed on the list in 1985. In the coming weeks, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality will be taking public comments prior to beginning the process of removing the White Lake area from the list.
Such delistings are rare. Since the United States and Canada signed the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement in 1978, the two governments have designated 43 AOCs on both sides of the border, and only five have been taken off the list. Shedding the designation will help the White Lake area move on from what was Michigan’s worst environmental disaster at the time of its discovery in the mid-1970s.
“We will be able to begin to change our image — from a ‘toxic hotspot’ to a success story of a community that restored its lake and cares for and values its natural assets,” said Tanya Cabala, a community resident who has been active in remediation efforts for many years. “We will also be able to look to the future and focus our resources and efforts on environmental stewardship and sustainability, rather than cleanup of pollution from decades past.”
But even today, contamination remains in the ground here and many residents fear that cancers cropping up among loved ones are the result of what came before — a lethal legacy possibly haunting the present.
The contamination of the lake began in the 1860s with the establishment of a tannery operation on its southern shore. But the most notorious problems didn’t begin until the early 1950s arrival of Hooker Chemical — the same company responsible for the Love Canal disaster in upstate New York and major environmental problems at sites around the country.
Local officials actively recruited Hooker and, for the most part, got the jobs and growth they so badly needed. They were not prepared for what came along with them.
Salt reserve draws industry
The neighboring cities of Montague and Whitehall were left behind when the area’s lumber industry packed up after clearing the old-growth white pines. Desperate to bring in jobs, local officials invited New York-based Hooker Chemical to expand its operations here, using the area’s reserves of salt buried a half-mile underground as a lure.
Hooker agreed to build an $18 million plant in Montague, just north of White Lake, that would employ 154 people when it came online. The salt was initially used to make caustic soda and chlorine. Hooker’s presence quickly drew even more players to the area like DuPont and Union Carbide.
“I remember it was the greatest thing since shredded wheat,” said longtime resident and former Whitehall mayor Norm Ullman. “It was going to bring us jobs and people.”
In 1940, Montague and Whitehall’s combined population was 2,146. By 1970, that figure had climbed to 5,396, bringing new high schools, a new hospital and a sewage plant. For those who had grown up attending a school that housed kindergarten through 12th-grade classes, these were big changes.
At the time of Hooker’s arrival, Henry Roesler Jr. was a Montague police officer on his way to becoming chief. Over the next 60 years, he would be a constant presence in local government — including 10 two-year stints as mayor.
“There was somewhat of a change in the whole atmosphere of the community,” said Roesler, in a 2011 interview with The Detroit News. “Most of those (new arrivals) were very active in the community, serving on school boards and city council and township boards. … They were welcomed into the community and took part in the community, which was very beneficial.” Roesler died just months after that interview at age 84.
For someone like Betty Nafe, a young widow with three boys to raise, Hooker’s arrival was a needed boost. In the 1950s, Nafe took a job in the plant’s chemical lab and would work there intermittently for a total of 16 years.
“It was here and it was good for the area,” said Nafe, now 90 and still living within of a mile of the old plant. “A lot of people drove (from) as far away as Scottville, Michigan, to work here — a long way.”
Growth brings problems
Even in the earliest years, Hooker’s operation caused occasional problems for the community. Emergency crews had to evacuate parts of Montague in May 1955 when the plant released a cloud of chlorine gas. Problems became more commonplace when the company expanded its operation.
Some time after the evacuation, Hooker began producing a chemical called hexachlorocyclopentadiene. Tagged C-56, the chemical was utilized as a flame retardant and a pesticide, and would be described by a “CBS Evening News” reporter in 1979 as “one of the most dangerous chemicals known to science.”
Beginning in 1957, Hooker’s approach to getting rid of the wastes from its C-56 operation, included: dumping them into on-site lagoons or placing them in 55-gallon drums, taking those drums to a section of the plant’s 880-acre property and leaving them there. The wastes from those barrels would be allowed to leak onto the ground from holes cut by axes.
For 15 years, the barrels accumulated on the property until there were was a mountain of 20,000 of them.
“Years ago we thought that the sun and the sand would cleanse everything,” Nafe said, describing the mindset of Hooker officials. “Even doctors thought that the sun and the beach sand would clean the lake water. Of course, we know that isn’t true now.”
Hooker’s disposal techniques allowed toxic chemicals to seep into the groundwater — something company officials knew was likely, according to an in-house report generated in 1952 before the plant began operating. The report made it clear the plant site was not the right place to dump liquid wastes of any kind.
“The sand deposits on which the Montague plant is situated are so porous and permeable that any soluble material dumped or spread at or near the surface will, in time, seep downward and become part of the groundwater,” the report read.
Hooker also pumped some C-56 wastes along with its wastewater discharge into White Lake. In 1976, a Michigan Department of Natural Resources study found 10 pounds of C-56 wastes were reaching the lake each day.
During the summer America celebrated its bicentennial, scrutiny of the Hooker site — now owned by Armand Hammer’s California-based Occidental Petroleum Corp. — began to ratchet up. Large numbers of dead fish found in White Lake was brought to the attention of Michigan’s Department of Natural Resources, which responded by ordering the company to prove its discharges weren’t harmful.
The next year, a Hooker employee who had witnessed the company’s disregard for public safety firsthand, quit his job and came forward as a whistle-blower. After six years at the plant, Warren Dobson provided an affidavit recounting frightening tales of Hooker’s waste-handling and business practices.
“Generally, they don’t care how they operate as far as pollution goes because money, as in most corporations, (is) the biggest concern … ,” Dobson told a documentary interviewer at the time. “People had better wise up, that’s all I can say. They’ve been told and they’ve been warned. There’s an illness in the community. And it has to be taken care of before it becomes terminal.”
Soon after, C-56 contamination was detected in residential wells in a subdivision near the Hooker plant, forcing the company to pay for homes to be connected to municipal water. Meanwhile, another company property roughly 400 miles to the east was gaining notoriety of its own.
Litigation to remediation
In 1978, officials in New York reported the discovery of 200 tons of toxins buried on land Hooker Chemical Co. had sold to the Niagara Falls Schools Board for $1 in 1953. Soon after the sale, those wastes had begun to seep into local basements, initiating the Love Canal disaster. The company’s repeated environmental issues at both sites, as well as others in Tennessee, Louisiana and California, garnered increased scrutiny.
In April 1979, CBS News anchorman Walter Cronkite led off one segment saying: “No company has figured more prominently in stories about toxic waste than Hooker Chemical … .”
Amid all of this, Michigan Attorney General Frank J. Kelley filed a lawsuit against Hooker Chemical for polluting White Lake, as well as groundwater and soils, with massive amounts of chemicals from its Montague plant. It resulted in a $15 million settlement agreement that Kelley described at the time as “one of the largest chemical remediation programs ever.”
That program produced what locals came to refer to as the “Temple of Doom” — a massive clay-lined vault built into the ground on Hooker’s property that contains 970,500 tons of contaminated soils, equipment and building materials. Hooker’s chemical plant in Montague was essentially razed and buried inside a three-story structure the length of three football fields.
In the early 1980s, James Truchan worked with Michigan’s Water Resource Commission helping investigate contamination sites.
“It was the Love Canal above ground,” he said last month at his home in East Jordan. “We built the vault for all of that stuff to be put into… . That was the best technology we had at the time … . It’s still there and still has all the contamination in it. If the vault ever caves in … .”
Today, the Occidental property features only two small buildings in addition to the vault. But a large swath of C-56 contamination remains trapped in the geologic strata beneath the old plant site. Purge and monitoring wells ensure that contaminated water from both locations does not reach White Lake. They will remain in operation in perpetuity, unless new technologies allow for the contamination to be removed some time in the future, an Occidental spokesman said.
‘Absolutely a success story’
For more than three decades now, locals have been working with state and federal officials to restore White Lake. To be on the verge of delisting, a series of issues had to be addressed including: restrictions on consumption of fish, wildlife and drinking water; damage to local fish and wildlife populations; habitat restoration, and restrictions on dredging activities.
It has required tons of materials be removed from the lake, millions of gallons of tainted groundwater pumped and millions of dollars spent. Many locals continue to use the lake for boating, fishing and swimming. Others have stayed away, even as the health of the lake has gradually improved over the years.
Today, however, state officials say the lake is ready for uses of all kinds.
“It’s absolutely a success story from a lot of different aspects,” said John Riley, the AOC coordinator for Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. “We’ve removed a lot of chemical contamination, and that’s good for environmental health. That means good things for human health. That means good things for ecological health … .
“It’s also a success from the aspect of this world-class collaboration — all of these federal, state and local agencies, local individuals and businesses that have come together. We’ve all learned a ton. We know it’s important to keep up that watchdog focus so that this kind of thing doesn’t happen (again).”