TRAVERSE CITY — Cyanide in groundwater beneath the Hotel Indigo construction site poses a threat to the health of nearby Grand Traverse Bay, and has sparked an investigation into whether the toxin already is migrating into the picturesque body of water.
Local officials on Friday stressed that significantly high cyanide levels are not considered a threat to public health. They said swimmers or others who regularly use the bay for recreational purposes should not be concerned, even if the toxin is seeping into the bay through an underwater aquifer.
But documents obtained by the Record-Eagle through a state Freedom of Information Act request show cyanide levels found in groundwater pose a threat to the bay's ecosystem.
Measurements of cyanide in groundwater at the Indigo site along Grandview Parkway measured as high as 1,200 parts per billion on June 21. That figure is more than 100 times higher than acceptable levels of environmental cleanup standards for aquatic health set by Michigan for bodies of water like Grand Traverse Bay, said local environmental consultant Chris Grobbel.
“It’s significant,” said Grobbel. “We have rules and laws in place to prevent this type of thing because we care about the health of our waterways.”
Jean Derenzy, deputy director of Grand Traverse County's Planning & Development Department, said last week that Hotel Indigo's spring 2014 opening will be delayed because higher-than-expected levels of cyanide were discovered in groundwater at the site.
Cyanide of that concentration requires extensive pre-treatment of groundwater before it can be dispatched to a wastewater treatment plant. That necessity in turn translates into unexpected costs for the project’s developer, Jeff Schmitz.
Schmitz did not respond to a request for comment on this story.
Derenzy said the surprise cyanide levels spike prompted state Department of Environmental Quality officials to allocate more than $600,000 to the brownfield project to help with on-site water treatment. Cyanide-contaminated water is being treated with bleach on-site, Derenzy said, before it is sent to the treatment facility.
The long-delayed Indigo project also received $1 million in taxpayer money from the Environmental Protection Agency for site cleanup-related activities.
“They (the developer) are incurring substantial costs, as well,” Derenzy said. “As soon as I knew we had to pre-treat, I brought (the DEQ) in.”
Derenzy said an investigation is underway to determine if cyanide is seeping into the bay. The toxin's source is not known, but a prominent suspicion is that the groundwater was contaminated by a coal gasification plant that operated nearly a century ago near the Indigo site.
“We had a lot of industry on the bay,” Derenzy said. “We just don’t know the source.”
Grobbel said there’s little doubt the cyanide-tainted water is migrating into the bay underground. He said the aquifer containing the tainted water clearly leads to the bay.
“Absolutely getting into the bay. The groundwater has been scientifically studied and it flows due north,” Grobbel said. “It’s well-studied. We know exactly what it does.”
Andy Knott of The Watershed Center Grand Traverse Bay expressed concern about the test results from the Indigo site.
“It’s alarming," Knott said. "I think we need some better monitoring between that point and the bay … there definitely needs to be some mitigation. I’m pretty concerned about it if that’s high and that close to the bay.”
Derenzy said cyanide findings are concerning, but said the Indigo project sparked a long-term endeavor to address and clean up the problem, which will help further area development in the long-term.
“As you go down on the Grandview Parkway, it’s going to be the same issue,” Derenzy said. “There’s water coming underneath all those properties, and that’s what we are trying to stop so we are not having to do this again and again.”