Traverse City is rightly proud of its long history as a business hub. But all those decades of agricultural and commercial activity left behind faint but lingering ghosts in the ground beneath our feet.
Like all communities of advanced age, Traverse City recycles land for fresh purposes. Foundries are torn down to make room for office structures. Farms are redeveloped into housing complexes. Canneries are demolished to make room for public parks.
Redevelopment involves digging. And digging into dirt that has been used for industry or agricultural can reveal potentially harmful substances — things like cyanide, arsenic and PFAS. We’ve become more aware of these dangers through the last several decades, and testing and remediation techniques have been refined to help us deal with brownfield problems. Cyanide and arsenic can be fatal in high concentrations; in low concentrations they aren’t as immediately dangerous but over time can cause health issues.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates there are more than 450,000 brownfield sites in the nation. Every community across the country needs to deal with them. It’s a public health issue.
We can monitor ground water to ensure contamination levels stay under safe limits. If water becomes too strongly contaminated, we can stop drinking it. If soil is found to contain danger, we can dig it up and move it somewhere to keep it isolated.
Or, as in the case of the Orchardview Terrace residential complex on land owned by the City of Traverse City, authorities can warn residents not to dig and to be careful not to spread dust when doing lawn work. Despite that caution, tests in 2018 found elevated arsenic levels in two children who lived in the complex.
Arsenic has been found in soil at many locations around Traverse City. It remains a lingering reminder of the weed killers and pesticides once widely used in orchards and along railroad tracks, according to Chris Grobbel, a former DEQ employee who now does business as Grobbel Environmental and Planning Associates.
Agricultural and industrial activities deposited a variety of substances in local soils — over a long period.
Grand Traverse County became a legal entity in 1851, according to the Traverse Area Historical Society. The first cherry trees were planted on Old Mission Peninsula in 1852. Traverse City was home to a variety of manufacturing plants — which churned out products like carriages, sleighs, iron castings, shingles, fire hydrants, farm implements, wood containers, wash boards and canned goods — throughout the 1800s and 1900s.
As a general rule, the older the community and the more commercial activity, the more resulting chemical residue left in soil. It’s not surprising that arsenic, cyanide and other chemicals are present in local land being recycled into new housing and business developments.
Redevelopment will continue throughout the region. Local population is growing, and new construction is required to provide places to live, work and play. New construction is bound to reveal chemical remnants of the area’s agricultural and industrial past.
We live in a wonderful place with a long, interesting history. That history travels with chemical baggage. Cleaning up the mess is a dirty job — but somebody’s got to do it.
Figuring out who that somebody is — is another chore altogether.