Small Town in Michigan Faces TCE Contamination


A small town in Michigan faced a rapidly developing emergency this week, after its local water wells were found to have staggering amounts of trichloroethylene (TCE), a solvent used on grease and oil linked to cancer and serious neurological damage. The large deposit, estimated to extend for over 5.4 miles, was found after officials testing groundwater for metals revisited a 15- year old site in the town of Mancelona, 200 miles northwest of Detroit.

While not squarely in the “Rust Belt”, Mancelona had its share of heavy industry. The TCE contamination is linked to numerous manufacturers, many of which no longer exist, like the Mt. Clemens Metal Products Company which used the solvent from 1947 to 1967. In the absence of a single culprit, the state of Michigan was forced to take responsibility for the TCE plume and heavy metals found at the site.

Drums of Trichloroethylene

Currently, the state of Michigan has made no effort to conduct a health study near the site—although it is “monitoring the plume and working with local officials to make sure residents aren’t exposed to the carcinogenic chemical”, according to Janice Adams, a senior geologist for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

In 2005, the state drilled a municipal well intended to supply the nearby community with drinkable water. It is estimated to serve 2,700 people according to Freshwater Future, an environmental non-profit that assists Michigan communities in monitoring and restoring drinking water. Many residents aren’t getting the uncontaminated drinking water due to its high cost; as a result, they’re forced to drink TCE-saturated water.

“If this existed in a large metro area, like Detroit or Lansing or Grand Rapids, it would have gotten more attention a long time ago,” said Gary Street, a consultant with Freshwater Future. “It’s a small community that’s been neglected.”

The TCE plume is expected to grow annually at a rate of 300 to 400 feet, possibly reaching the municipal well in the next three to five years. Marcelona is by no means alone in its crisis: There are more than 300 known TCE waste sites in Michigan.

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