Traverse City Record-Eagle

September 1, 2013

Editorial: Officials must confirm cyanide plume findings

Traverse City Record-Eagle

---- — It’s downright miraculous. Or maybe just great good luck. Or maybe none of the above.

According to a company hired to monitor a cyanide-tainted groundwater plume beneath the city’s Warehouse District and adjacent to Grandview Parkway the plume has not migrated into West Bay.

“It’s close,” said Doug Kilmer, a senior geologist with AKT Peerless, which performed the tests. “We are not detecting (cyanide) in the bay.”

A map of the plume release by Grand Traverse County officials shows the cyanide coming right to the very edge of the bay. The same map shows that to the south, the plume actually curls around a bend of the Boardman River but apparently hasn’t gotten into the water there, either. Amazing.

And where the plume ends up matters. A lot.

When high levels of cyanide were found in groundwater at the Hotel Indigo construction site this summer, the discovery prompted an extensive scientific probe into whether cyanide is leaching into the bay.

Measurements of cyanide in the groundwater at the Indigo site measured as high as 1,200 parts per billion this summer, well above levels that would allow the water to be discharged to the city wastewater treatment plant.

The findings raised concerns about future development in the Warehouse District, as well as questions about the bay’s long-term health. The Grand Traverse County Brownfield Authority commissioned a scientific study on the groundwater, and hired AKT Peerless.

The company worked with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to draw new water samples and review historical water tests in the area; the company revealed its findings last week.

“It hasn’t migrated or spread that far,” AKT’s Kilmer said. “We are just not seeing it. The plume is probably actually diminishing in size over time.”

“Probably” can’t be the last word.

Environmental consultant Chris Grobbel said the fact that cyanide is found in water samples so close to the bay still presents a significant threat.

“This is typically what happens when a groundwater plume enters into a large body of water like the bay,” Grobbel said.

And it can’t be fogotten that in 2005, AKT Peerless claimed in a report regarding the site of the now-defunct Petoskey Pointe project that some soil borings taken at the site showed high concentrations of tetrachloroethylene, commonly known as PCE and up to 10,000 cubic yards of contaminated soil would have to be removed from the site.

That report helped Petoskey Pointe developers land $4.5 million in state brownfield tax credits. But it turned out that AKT’s findings — which had been challenged by the DEQ — were wrong. In a letter to the DEQ, Peerless “indicated that PCE concentrations detected in the soil were from laboratory contamination or another source of container contamination and did not accurately reflect PCE concentrations in the soil on the subject property,” the DEQ said.

Despite that discovery, the claim of high PCE contamination continued to appear in Petoskey Pointe paperwork. A little more than six weeks after Peerless confirmed the mistake, the erroneous information was used in an application to the MEDC. And even though the estimates of soil to be removed from the site dropped from the initial 10,000 cubic yards to just a few hundred, developers still got $4.5 million in tax credits.

The Petoskey Pointe site is now just a hole in the ground.

In 2005, essentially everyone involved in the Petoskey Pointe project, from the developers to the Michigan Economic Development Corp. to Emmet County officials, wanted Petoskey Pointe to be a go; $4.5 million in tax credits would be a big help.

In Traverse City, pretty much everyone involved in tracking the cyanide plume, from Hotel Indigo developers to the Grand Traverse County Brownfield Authority to Warehouse District boosters to the DEQ, want to ease public concerns about the cyanide plume.

AKT made a mistake in 2005 that, it can be argued, cost state taxpayers $4.5 million in unnecessary tax credits. Now, the company has issued scientific findings in another public/private development that seem too good to be true.

History can’t be allowed to repeat itself. It’s up to local officials to be sure it doesn’t.