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Sleeping Bear's Big Stink

Park, citizens push resort to modify controversial sewage disposal method

November 30, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The Homestead, a large resort near Glen Arbor, regularly sprays wastewater from its septic lagoon onto this wooded area in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore.

GLEN ARBOR — The Homestead, a large luxury resort just north of here, is spraying effluent from its sewage on land within the maritime national park that surrounds this tiny Lake Michigan village. Although the resort has a legal easement for the spraying, a required permit expired for the activity six years ago. Now the National Park Service is looking for a way to modify the practice, which interferes with the public's enjoyment of the park and,  testing indicates, may be harming the wells of nearby neighbors.

At the invitation of the National Park Service, neighbors of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, where The Homestead is located, are considering proposals by the park's management that would hopefully improve the resort's sewage disposal practices. As a result, public pressure is building to convince the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to take a larger role in enforcing wastewater treatment rules. Without that enforcement, these residents worry that the practice will threaten public health, drinking water, property values, and the big lake.

Although the effects of The Homestead’s wastewater practices are largely local, they pose a statewide issue. In the 1990s, The Homestead and other big businesses ran circles around the MDEQ, which is charged with monitoring water quality and issuing discharge permits. The agency was effectively hibernating then, due to what was widely regarded as the business-at-any-cost attitude of former Republican Governor John Engler. Now the onus is on Democratic Governor Jennifer M. Granholm, who ran for office promising a more environmentally-sensitive economic development strategy, to confront the problem directly through the MDEQ.

An Important Test
For Governor Granholm, The Homestead’s wastewater treatment method represents an important test of her ability to enforce state environmental laws even as the Legislature systematically cuts the agency’s staffing and budget. Proving that her administration can protect the environment by using taxpayer money effectively within that budget is essential to her reelection chances as a centrist leader who can get results.

“This is a real high-profile case with The Homestead, so you should see some enforcement here,” local environmental activist Greg Reisig predicted. “I can’t imagine that MDEQ will just let this slide. But the cutbacks have been steeper than reported, and they will only increase in 2006 and 2007 under a Republican-dominated Legislature. The cuts will directly impact actions like monitoring The Homestead.”

Some 70 citizens attended a meeting at the Glen Arbor Town Hall about the issue on Nov. 16. The next day, the park’s local managers released The Homestead Resort Wastewater Disposal Environmental Assessment. The document indicates that local park managers, who have witnessed years of inaction on the matter by state authorities, are considering altering the waste disposal arrangement already in place when the park was established.

The managers are asking the resort to consider doing one of two things: Move the septic treatment to another location within the park and use the traditional underground septic treatment method, or upgrade the current disposal method but make it compliant with MDEQ regulations, which would likely involve cutting down a large number of trees to enable the ground to better absorb the effluent. The public has unti Dec. 30 to comment on the options the managers are considering.

Problems with Grandfather
Because much of The Homestead was built before the federal government established Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in 1972, it enjoys a “grandfathered” easement that allows wastewater disposal on two parcels of what is now parkland. The resort obtained its first state-issued groundwater discharge permit in 1993, when it began the spraying practice. But its permit expired in January of 1998 and has not been reauthorized, despite continued efforts by both sides to reach an agreement.

So, without a permit, The Homestead continues to spray what is technically known as septage — the cloudy, smelly water that remains after raw sewage has received treatment — on the two parcels: A heavily wooded area and a cleared field planted with alfalfa, both within the park’s borders. With the big complex, which calls itself “America’s Freshwater Resort,” now operating at maximum capacity in the summer and building more condominiums, the septage-spraying problem is bound to get worse.

At the town meeting two weeks ago, accusatory statements and hostile stares from the crowd clearly put the blame on The Homestead for acting like an irresponsible neighbor, and on the MDEQ, which one man dubbed “a toothless tiger,” for failing to hold The Homestead’s nose to the grindstone. Representatives from the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore emerged relatively unscathed.

Some water quality and health experts say the resort’s septage spraying is becoming an increasingly serious problem. According to Chris Grobbel, a consultant with Ball Environmental Associates in Traverse City, monitor wells that measure nitrogen — a potentially poisonous nutrient found in wastewater — recorded 65 violations between 1991 and 2002 in that part of the park. State records indicate that The Homestead also violated pollution cleanup laws 14 times between 1991 and 1996, and that the septage spray itself has violated environmental standards for nitrogen, phosphorous, and fecal coliform 123 times between 1995 and 2001.

Other reports show that fecal coliform counts have reached 600 times the legal level — indicating that bacteria in the sprayed septage could pose a severe public health risk to park visitors who walk anywhere near 12.9-acres where the operation occurs or who swim in the Port Oneida Reef area of Lake Michigan, where that area’s groundwater eventually flows. This constitutes another violation altogether, according to Tracy J. Andrews, an attorney with Olson, Bzdok & Howard, an environmental and land use law firm in Traverse City.

Over the years, Sleeping Bear’s overseers have done little to fix the problems. In fact, it was National Park Service management that granted The Homestead its wish to begin spraying septage. In 1993, then-Superintendent Ivan Miller amended the resort’s original easement to begin the practice in lieu of pumping more wastewater into a drain field. And the park managers have never pressed the MDEQ to enforce the 100-foot buffer zone its original permit required for separating the sewage treatment area from neighboring properties. In effect, the land rendered off-limits to park visitors is more like 16 acres, not the 12.9 stipulated in the original easement.

The park service says that, if the treatment site is not moved, it will press MDEQ to enforce the buffer zone, which would likely force The Homestead to better treat its effluent, because the wastewater absorption area would be smaller.

Time to Get Tough
The MDEQ could put a stop to all of this by requiring proper permits and making sure The Homestead follows them to the letter. It’s not an unreasonable hope. Fifteen months ago, MDEQ Director Steven Chester issued his department’s first unilateral administrative orders under the Polluter Pay amendment since 1997. His department hammered the Quanex Corporation, a successor to the Standard Tube Company of Wayne County and AAR Cadillac Manufacturing, for polluting the air, soil, and groundwater. At the time, Mr. Chester indicated he was serious about ending big companies’ polluting ways.

“The issuance of a unilateral Administrative Order is a powerful tool to compel compliance with applicable cleanup criteria considered essential to protecting human health and the environment,” he said in a written release in August of 2003. “Issuance of these orders sends a clear message that liable parties must accept responsibility for the environmental contamination that they have caused.”

Indeed, Governor Granholm gave notice to Michigan polluters that she meant business when she appointed Mr. Chester, a tough egg who spent three years in Washington, D.C., honing his skills at the Environmental Protection Agency. He promised he would play no favorites when it comes to enforcement.

“We want to do our best to minimize surprises, while educating people about environmental standards,” Mr. Chester told the Great Lakes Bulletin News Service last week. “It’s not important or compelling whether the polluter is a municipality or a corporation. What’s more important is the impact they have and how many people are affected.”

Who Pays the Price?
At the town meeting earlier this month, which was facilitated by the Michigan Land Use Institute’s Leelanau Smart Growth Coalition, several Glen Arbor residents suggested that the resort use a “single-batch reactor” to treat its sewage — a more environmentally friendly option that would cost The Homestead about twice what it currently spends on sewage treatment. They argue that it is local residents, not the owners or the patrons of The Homestead, who will pay a much higher price if groundwater tainted with nitrogen and fecal coliform counts starts to affect their drinking water. Many of them formed a non-profit organization over the summer called Advocates for Safe Drinking Water and Lakes.

Among other things, the group has urged Glen Arbor Township to reject The Homestead’s building permits application for new housing units whose waste would feed into the resort’s central septic lagoon collection system until the situation is resolved. The group is also urging the MDEQ to levy fines and vigorously enforce all aspects of the federal Clean Water Act.

In the end, though, the responsibility for treating its sewage in a legal and safe manner falls on The Homestead, which has the opportunity to heal longtime wounds with the local community and keep the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore beautiful and clean for years to come. After all, it does claim to be America’s Freshwater Resort.

Jacob Wheeler, a contributor to Utne magazine and founding editor of the Glen Arbor Sun in Leelanau County, Michigan, was raised in Glen Arbor and now lives in Minneapolis. Reach him at jacobrwheeler@hotmail.com

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