Sappi paper mill contamination not reaching Muskegon Lake, DEQ officials tell citizens

Sappi paper mill contamination not reaching Muskegon Lake, DEQ officials tell citizens

Source:, October 1, 2012
By: Dave Alexander

More than 150 people jammed Muskegon City Hall on Monday to hear the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality give an update on the environmental situation at the former paper mill on Muskegon Lake.

Citizens were told by state environmental regulators that there are known contaminated “hot spots” on the interior of the 120-acre property that for 109 years was a paper manufacturing site. Sappi Fine Paper, based in South Africa, ended paper-making operations in 2009.

Current owner Melching Inc., a Nunica-based demolition company, has installed monitoring wells along the property’s shoreline of Muskegon Lake, regulators said. Those wells have found that none of the interior property contaminants are leaking into the lake at this point, state officials said.

DEQ remediation and redevelopment officials from the Grand Rapids District Office are working with Melching officials and their environmental consultant, Lakeshore Environmental of Grand Haven. As the company’s environmental reports overseen by DEQ officials are produced, the next steps of environmental investigation of the property will be determined, according to David O’Donnell, who is supervising the Sappi property investigation for the state.

“All of the concerns at the end of the day will be addressed, but not next week, next month or next year,” O’Donnell told the informal meeting with concerned citizens. “It is going to take the time to get the job done right. This is a several-year project. Remember, it has taken 15 to 16 years with the White Lake tannery property.”

The DEQ is aware of historic contamination releases on the property from a decade ago. The “hot spot” locations in the center of the property show higher than allowed levels of sodium sulfate, a variety of heavy metals and mercury, according to DEQ remediation official Heather Hopkins. However, those toxic chemicals are not being found in the shoreline monitoring wells, she said.

The historic pollution that might be found in sediments in the Muskegon Lake bottom directly off the property remain unknown, DEQ officials said.

Melching purchased the Sappi property in 2011 with deed restrictions that had the Nunica-based demolition company assume the South African paper company’s environmental liabilities. Those restrictions have meant a formal baseline environmental assessment has not been done since Melching took control of the site, DEQ officials said.

“Without a baseline assessment, they won’t be able to distinguish who caused the pollution,” O’Donnell said. “Melching has the responsibility for everything.”

But if Melching does not address what is needed by DEQ regulators, Sappi will remain the company responsible, state officials said. The deed restrictions and transfer of liability is common practice, but the DEQ can’t enforce such a third-party agreement, state officials said. In the end, Sappi will be held responsible for the contamination it caused on the property, they said.

But citizen after citizen told DEQ officials of their frustration and anger at not getting enough information to understand the current environmental situation with the Sappi site. One area of immediate concern is reported dust coming from the paper mill site from the ongoing Melching demolition of the paper mill buildings.

DEQ officials said airborne particles are not allowed to leave the property and any such reports of those violations should be reported to the DEQ’s Grand Rapids office, according to Jennifer Dixon of the Air Quality Division. The Grand Rapids district office can be reached by telephone at (616) 356-0500.

“The company is well aware of what it is allowed to do,” Dixon said of her monitoring of the paper mill demolition project, which has been under way for nearly a year and is expected to take at least another year.

DEQ officials also had a formal public hearing on a Melching Inc. permit request to put two docks in a boat basin on the property at 2400 Lakeshore Dr. The DEQ has 60 days to make a decision on that docking permit that would allow for barge transportation of materials from a metal scrap processing operation planned for the industrial site.

“There will be future public meetings on this site. This is not a one-time event for our DEQ staff,” said Heidi Hollenbach, district supervisor of the DEQ’s Grand Rapids office.

The DEQ will investigate establishing a website to provide public information on the paper mill property as the environmental investigation and remediation plan progress, she said.

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