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Years of food processors' waste turns Michigan's natural treasures to ruins

Wastewater, disposal cost put some out of business

By Tina Lam | Freep.com

While searching for a lost cow, farmer Charlie Brozofsky discovered in late 2002 that a stream on his property was tainted. The stream, usually clear and rippling, was slimy orange.

What unfolded next was a saga of illegal blueberry waste dumping, which contaminated the groundwater that fed the stream, killing fish and other aquatic life in it.

In Michigan's prized fruit and vegetable industry, processors have contaminated groundwater with metals and arsenic by spraying wastewater on fields -- a 40-year-old practice that has led to polluted wells.

But in some cases, they also have dumped or spilled their waste into streams, marshes and wetlands, damaging them for years to come.

Two companies responsible for dumping the blueberry waste are still arguing with the state over cleaning up the stream, which flows to Platte Lake.

Eric Chatterson, the Department of Environmental Quality official overseeing the cleanup, visited the stream last week. There's still no life in it seven years later, he said.

"Even leaves don't decay in there," he said. Trees along the stream are still dying. The spring that feeds the stream gushes like orange paint.

The fixes are complex and expensive.

Processors, neighbors disagree over solutions

Keith Boyce's family used to own commercial trout ponds near Honor on property Boyce bought in the early 1970s.

"We had a nice little business there," he said. "Kids would come catch rainbow trout." They also sold fish to markets.

That ended in 2003 after neighboring Brozofsky discovered that the stream that fed the ponds was orange, contaminated with what turned out to be sky-high iron.

Boyce, who now lives in Kalamazoo, said the contamination wiped out thousands of small rainbow trout in the ponds and forced the closure of the business.

"We couldn't see the bottom of the ponds, but the fish were gone," he said. "It killed us."

The ponds are now filled in, and Boyce sold the property at a loss. "I was disgusted," he said.

According to Department of Environmental Quality documents, the pollution came from illegal dumping by Graceland Fruit, a processor in Frankfort that needed to get rid of blueberry juice waste, and Bonney Brothers Pumping Co. of Honor, which hauled 493 tankers of Graceland's waste and dumped it in a gravel pit from about 1999 to 2003. Bonney had no permit to dump the blueberry waste.

Harmful wastewater

As Michigan food processors are discovering, their wastewater is bad for groundwater, streams and marshes.

It's laden with sugars and salts that trigger a biological process that strips out oxygen and pulls natural metals in soil into the groundwater. Those metals, in high enough doses, harm fish and other aquatic life.

The waterways can take decades to recover.

Scientists figured out only in about the past decade that the wastewater is so harmful. No one has found a perfect replacement for the decades-long practice of spraying wastewater onto fields to get rid of it.

Companies that contaminate groundwater have to pay to investigate the problem and to clean it up. Then they have to find a new way to dispose of their wastewater.

The problems are expensive.

In Honor, while not admitting fault, Graceland and Bonney paid $250,000 to the state, including $100,000 for damage to natural resources, and an undisclosed amount to Brozofsky in lawsuit settlements. The companies excavated the pit, and Graceland built a $5-million system to treat most of its wastewater.

The two companies are required to rehabilitate the stream, which flows to Platte Lake, by 2013. What that will mean, exactly, is still uncertain.

Graceland's owner and attorney could not be reached for comment. "We want to make sure what we do to fix the problem doesn't make it worse," said Joseph Quandt, attorney for Bonney.

The companies argue that left alone, the groundwater and stream will recover in a few years.

The DEQ and the farmer disagree. The DEQ said the groundwater might have to be extracted and cleaned to cure all the problems.

"They're going to have to clean it up, that's all there is to it," Brozofsky said. "They made a terrible mess."

'We got fed up'

The Cherry Blossom plant in Williamsburg, which turns fresh cherries into maraschinos year-round, also got into trouble over its waste.

Starting about 2000, neighbors and the DEQ fought with the company over the handling of its wastewater.

The DEQ slapped violation notices on Cherry Blossom for illegally sending wastewater from a lagoon into ditches, wetlands and a swamp. Neighbors as far as 2 miles away complained of odors, which they compared to rotten eggs or dead animals.

"We got fed up," said Brad Boals, a neighbor.

The state and neighbors filed lawsuits in 2006, forcing the company to haul its wastewater away in tanks and clean up the lagoon. The DEQ collected $120,000 in fines. Neighbors won $350,000.

According to DEQ documents, there is evidence that Cherry Blossom contaminated residential wells. It was required to do more tests, but the latest report to the DEQ is overdue, so how bad the contamination is and how far it has spread is unclear.

Attorney Michael Corcoran said the company spent more than $1 million in the last three years complying with all the rules -- a strain on its bottom line. Cherry Blossom closed this summer. Owner Chris Hubbell hopes to sell it to a new processor, who will have to figure out how to dispose of the wastewater.

Finding a solution

"A long-term solution to the wastewater problem has to be figured out," not just for Cherry Blossom but for other processors, too, Corcoran said. "People in the business can see this has to be resolved for the whole industry."

Quandt, who represents a dozen food processors, agreed. "The problem is that people don't want to fully acknowledge the problem," he said. "They want to do it like their daddy did it."

Quandt, who used to work for the DEQ, said he's trying to educate his clients. Many are recognizing they must change.

The DEQ can't force that change too quickly, he said. Building a wastewater treatment system can cost $3 million to $5 million, and many processors have such tight margins, they can't afford it.

Still, the agency must enforce the law.

"If we ignore it, they're happy to ignore it," said Janice Heuer, a DEQ engineer who inspects food processing plants in northwest Michigan.

"The solutions will come from them," she said. "I have a lot of respect for the people at these plants. I think when they realize the extent of the problem, they will work together to solve it."

Contact TINA LAM: 313-222-6421 or [email protected]

 

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