By: Mallory Meston, WMEAC Lakeshore Fellow
The Eagle Ottawa Leather Company (EOLC) operated a leather tannery in Grand Haven, MI between 1916 to 2007. From 1994 to 2007, the EOLC managed residuals from their wastewater treatment plant by dewatering, composting, and then land-applying. These residuals were transported from Grand Haven to two locations in Newaygo and Oceana Counties, owned and operated by Eagle Ottawa Newaygo Farms until 2007.
In mid-2021, these two locations were sold, and the new owner submitted a Baseline Environmental Assessment (BEA) to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) in December of 2021. The BEA contained information showing PFAS contamination in shallow groundwater above EGLE clean-up criteria across both locations. Many residential drinking wells are present adjacent to both locations. In response, EGLE requested access to sample residential wells.
To inform the public of the PFAS investigation, the Michigan PFAS Action Response Team (MPART) and EGLE held an informational town hall meeting in July 2022 at the Walkerville Wesleyan Church, which was attended by 65 members of the public. MPART and EGLE addressed the PFAS contamination at two farms associated with EOLC, which lie on the border of Oceana and Newaygo counties. EGLE has identified these two farms as the “Hilltop” and “Longview” farms.
The town hall meeting was facilitated by Abigail Hendershott, the executive director of MPART. Hendershott described per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). PFAS substances include strong Carbon-Fluorine bonds; are highly stable; and they repel water, oil, fat, and grease. Hendershott also discussed why these substances are of concern to the Walkerville community. She explained that PFAS substances are widespread throughout the ecosystem, they don’t break down easily (hard to get rid of), they bioaccumulate (build up in our bodies), they can affect health, and they lack federal standards.
Additionally, Amber Klase, a Toxicologist from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS), discussed the public health response actions from MDHHS and the Local Health Departments (LHD). Klase announced the MDHHS and LHD suggested no public health actions were necessary for the Walkerville community, but recommended point-of-use home water filters or alternative water sources to residents living near the “Hilltop” and “Longview” farms.
The MDHHS point-of-use filters are certified to remove up to 96% of PFAS. Klase explained that those who qualify for a free point-of-use filter will receive communication from the MDHHS recommending the use of the water filtration system, and then those who qualify can pick up a free point-of-use filter from their local health department.
The final speaker was Aaron Assmann, the PFAS Site Lead at EGLE. Assmann detailed the Eagle Ottawa Newaygo Farms PFAS site investigation and discussed the baseline investigation conducted by EGLE. Assman confirmed that maximum concentrations of PFAS were detected at both “Longview” and “Hilltop” farms. Assmann concluded the meeting by discussing EGLE’s next steps and then handed the floor over to community members for questions.
A second informational community meeting was held on November 2, 2022, at the Walkerville High School, regarding an update on the MPART PFAS investigation at the “Hilltop” and Longview” farms. The meeting was hosted by the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter and Walkerville Thrives.
This meeting began by discussing the background of how EGLE became aware of the high levels of PFAS in the groundwater, in January 2022. Historically, the Eagle Ottawa Leather Tannery in Grand Haven had approved an Agricultural Use Agreement, allowing composted tannery residuals to be applied to agricultural fields from 1994-2007. The application of tannery residuals stopped in 2007, and currently only manure is being applied to the land now. However, EGLE has determined that the tannery residuals are believed to be the source of PFAS in the groundwater on site.
Residential well sampling was then discussed. In response to the PFAS detection, in May 2022, EGLE sampled 16 residential drinking water wells for PFAS adjacent to the two PFAS-impacted areas. The results confirmed that no PFAS was detected in 15 of the 16 residential wells. One residential well was above EGLE criteria and is located within the Longview farm itself. The owners of the contaminated PFAS residential well were offered a point-of-use filter and EGLE is working with the historical owner of the tannery (the responsible party) to replace the drinking water well at this location. All other residents have been notified of their results.
The property with the residential well that tested above EGLE’s PFAS criteria, located within the Longview farm, is currently a regulated concentrated animal feed operation (CAFO). As part of the investigation, the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development worked with the current owner of the farm to learn about the farm operations relative to PFAS. The pigs are fed corn kernels which have a low likelihood of absorbing PFAS, compared to other parts of the corn. No corn is sold to other farms, and hay grown on an impacted field is not fed to animals.
In addition, the groundwater well used by the pigs for drinking water for a brief time (before moving to another location) previously had levels of PFAS above criteria but now has a filter. The investigation concluded that given the current farm operations, with the pigs drinking filtered water and eating acceptable feed, it is not expected that PFAS would be in the manure being spread on the land.
The meeting concluded with a discussion of EGLE’s future activities. As a result of the residential well sampling, EGLE explained that since 15 of the 16 nearby residential wells sampled did not detect PFAS, and EGLE has not obtained any additional information to suggest additional risks to residential wells, EGLE does not intend to conduct additional residential sampling. However, EGLE will continue to work with the historical owner of the tannery to further investigate the groundwater to learn more about the groundwater flow and the extent of the contamination.
If residents are interested in sampling their own wells, go to the MPART website for a list of drinking water labs at https://www.Michigan.gov/pfasresponse/drinking-water/laboratories. Each lab will have a kit that will contain instructions on how to self-sample. For questions about drinking water sampling or your results, contact the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) Drinking Water Hotline at 844-934-1315.