TRAVERSE CITY — Traci George takes steps to keep her 3-year-old son from playing in the arsenic-tainted dirt at Orchardview Townhomes.
She worries it’s not enough.
“I put down landscaping fabric, I brought in sand,” she said. “But he’s 3 years old, what do you do?”
Warnings from the Traverse City Housing Commission, which manages the income-based, city-owned rentals, fall flat for George. Kids being kids get covered in dirt when they play outside, so it’s more than just not letting them eat it, she said.
George heard of other children who lived at Orchardview who had arsenic show up in tests at doctor’s visits. Her son is due to visit the doctor soon, and she’ll have him tested.
Brian Flickinger is the Michigan Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division project manager for the Cadillac district. He said the housing commission will submit a response activity plan, a report that lays out steps the housing commission will take to ensure Orchardview residents are safe.
These reports include a look at how people potentially could be exposed to the arsenic, and what can be done to cut off those exposure pathways, Flickinger said. The housing commission could also seek a site-specific evaluation — a closer look at Orchardview’s risk factors that go deeper than the state’s generic residential exposure criteria.
Those criteria are based on 30 years of exposure, and factors like snow cover in the winter and soil types affect how much of a risk arsenic in the soil actually poses, Flickinger said. So too does turnover at rental housing like Orchardview.
Flickinger said housing commission representatives requested a sit-down following EGLE’s April 26 request for a due care plan for Orchardview.
Soil around the housing complex contains arsenic from its past as an orchard. Chemicals containing the toxin once were widely used by farmers and along railroad tracks.
Tests by the DEQ — as EGLE was known then — in 2012 showed arsenic levels ranging from 4.2 milligrams per kilogram around the play area to 16 milligrams per kilogram in an overgrown corner where excavators piled topsoil during construction.
Michigan’s criteria for residential direct contact is 7.6 milligrams per kilogram, documents show — concentrations higher than that pose a risk if dirt gets on the skin or is breathed or ingested.
The criteria could change, Flickinger said. Newly available science prompted the department to draft new rules that would bump the cutoff slightly higher. Those would need to go through the rule-making process before they would take effect.
“But that does not restrict somebody like Traverse City Housing Commission from using that science and requesting a site-specific (evaluation),” he said.
Kristyn Houle, an environmental attorney, wants to see the response activity plan. She represents a tenant association of roughly a dozen Orchardview residents with concerns about arsenic around their homes. She’s also spoken with a now-former resident whose childrens’ urine tests showed high levels of arsenic.
Houle said she’ll have an environmental expert look it over and is prepared to take legal action if they don’t believe the plan adequately protects the dozens of children at Orchardview.
Residents at Orchardview sign a notice of the issue when they move in, TCHC Director Tony Lentych said.
That notice warns residents not to dig in the soil or plant anything in the ground.
Rachel Ward lives at Orchardview and has three children, she said. She grows plants in boxes out back and wishes her youngest, a one-year-old, could play in the mud — “You know, be a kid,” she said.
Ward thinks the arsenic is more of a nuisance, and she doesn’t live in fear for her childrens’ health, she said.
Veronica Watson, another Orchardview resident, is completely unconcerned and voiced anger at what she asserted is a politically driven ploy to squeeze out poor residents from a wealthy corner of Traverse City.
Arsenic can be found on lots of properties in the area, Watson said. Orchardview has a tight-knit community of moms who help each other out. Watson, who has two sons, said it’s something she doesn’t want to lose.
“I am concerned about losing my house, about losing my living,” she said.
Lentych said no one will be made homeless by the issue — “I will not allow that to happen,” he said.
The housing commission will work through the process EGLE laid out, and will fence off areas with the worst contamination to cut exposure risks, Lentych said.
Residents who want to move can get vouchers for other housing, Lentych said.
The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development wants the issue resolved, Lentych said — the agency said as much in a June 20 letter to city Mayor Jim Carruthers.
Traverse City Housing Commission may sell the property if state regulators don’t eventually agree no further action is needed on the property. If sold, the housing commission would give income-based housing vouchers to residents to live elsewhere.
HUD temporarily held the housing commission’s 2018 and 2019 Capital Fund Program Grants because the housing commission had no environmental review on file. Douglas Gordon, Michigan HUD Field Office of Public Housing director, wrote as much in a July 23 letter to the housing commission.
Gordon then wrote on Aug. 22 that the hold was lifted after the housing commission submitted an environmental review at the end of July.
Messages left at HUD’s Detroit field office weren’t returned as of Friday.
Lentych said the money is for non-maintenance related building expenses — roof repairs, for example. The hold didn’t affect any projects at Orchardview, he said.
The same contamination issue prompted the housing commission to abandon previous plans to expand Orchardview, Lentych previously said.
Flickinger said he expects to see the housing commission’s response soon. The housing commission could face enforcement measures if it doesn’t follow through with the plan.
Residents can learn more about the soil around them at a Sept. 25 meeting, Lentych said. The Benzie Leelanau Health Department is sending a representative, as is the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.
Lynn Sutfin, a DHHS spokesperson, said an agency member will talk about the health impacts of arsenic and how residents can cut their risk.
George said she’s frustrated by waiting to hear more about the situation. She hopes the housing commission can test the soil again so residents have new information on how much of the toxin is in the housing complex’s soil.
“The biggest thing is, they’re saying don’t let your kids eat the dirt,” she said. “If their hands are dirty, they could put their hand in their mouth. They’re just kids, they play on the ground, they play in the dirt.”