TRAVERSE CITY — Groundwater that flows beneath Traverse City's Warehouse District tested positive for cyanide and a host of other toxins over the last 15 years, including lead and arsenic, a Record-Eagle inquiry shows.
Sporadic tests over the years document the presence of carcinogens in the downtown Traverse City aquifer, based on documents obtained by the Record-Eagle through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Test results add to some experts' concerns about Grand Traverse Bay's aquatic health, given high levels of cyanide found this summer in the same aquifer during construction of the Hotel Indigo property along Grandview Parkway.
"People care about the health of the bay," said Chris Grobbel, an environmental consultant who reviewed records of groundwater tests. "We spend a lot of money locally to study it and protect it. Now, through the process of redevelopment, we are dealing with the industrial legacy of Traverse City.
"We need to make sure we don’t kill the goose that laid the golden egg for tourism," Grobbel said.
Grobbel and others suspect the aquifer was contaminated by an old coal gasification plant, the Traverse City Gas Co., which operated for decades across the street from the Hotel Indigo property at 301 W. Grandview.
The Record-Eagle obtained groundwater testing results for the last 15 years that were performed by a contractor hired by the current property owner, Michigan Gas Utilities Corporation.
In 1998, 2001 and 2002, groundwater samples showed levels of Benzene in the water above the residential drinking water criteria. Water draws tested positive for arsenic in 2003 and 2005. Cadmium was present in levels above the residential drinking water standard in 2003. Positive tests above the residential drinking water standards occurred in 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2010.
Similar positive tests have occurred for benzoanthracene, benzopyrene, benzofluoranthene, benzoperylene, chrystene, and indenopyrene. Elevated levels of cyanide were found in the aquifer in tests performed in the last six weeks, causing a delay in the much anticipated Hotel Indigo property.
Human exposure to such carcinogens can cause increased risk for cancer. Interviews with some local experts indicate the toxins do not pose a threat to public health because the aquifer is not a source of drinking water.
But if carcinogens are making it into the Grand Traverse Bay, the water body's overall health could be negatively affected, including the health of aquatic organisms. Federal studies show fish and birds are sensitive to cyanide; the toxin can cause adverse effects on swimming and reproduction.
An attorney who represents Michigan Gas Utilities Corporation said the old coal gasification plant site is not responsible for elevated cyanide levels at the Hotel Indigo development, and he said groundwater sampling and other tests prove it.
"We've been examining the environmental impact that exists in this area," Traverse city attorney Joseph Quandt said. "It’s important to understand that you have an incredible industrial history that’s related to this (area.) All kinds of potential sources.
"When you look at aerial photographs, you had a great deal of industry around the turn of the last century, and everybody basically burned coal.
"The properties around this site included coal storage, slag dumps, there was an old railroad slag facility where they used to clean out the boilers … there is more than one potential source of cyanide, as well as coal byproducts,” Quandt said.
But Grobbel said it's clear to him that the coal gasification plant is the likely source of the cyanide aquifer contamination. Cyanide, he said, is a byproduct of coal gasification.
"All of this has the signature of coal gasification," Grobbel said, adding water flow in the area has been extensively studied.
"The old gas plant which is now south of the candle factory where the bus depot is -- that’s our source," Grobbel said. "Likely waste piles and leakage."
The Hotel Indigo project already received extensive public funding, including $1 million in federal Environmental Protection Agency funds. The discovery of elevated cyanide levels also prompted the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to allocate another $600,000 for treatment of cyanide in groundwater there.
DEQ officials also are testing water in the area this summer.
Rick Howard owns Pescador, an environmental consultant firm that tested groundwater in the area for years on behalf of Michigan Gas Utilities. He said his company's test results show cyanide that showed up in groundwater at the Hotel Indigo site isn't from the old coal gasification property.
"It has been methodically, painstakingly defined," said Howard. "It's not a one-time snapshot. Its been years of data to support that. We are confident in what’s leaving this property."
Eric Helzer is a regional manager for environmental consultant AKT Peerless. The company is working with the Grand Traverse County Brownfield Development Authority to analyze all historical test results in the area and to test Grand Traverse Bay samples.
Helzer took water samples from the Bay last week to try and discern what, if any, pollutants are making it to the region's cherished tourism attraction.
"It's clearly a great concern for the county," Helzer said.