A public meeting in Grand Haven is still scheduled for next week by the state environmental agency to discuss a draft air permit for a now-canceled proposal for a natural gas-powered peaking plant on Harbor Island. Read more
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On Sep 13, 2021, EGLE hosted a virtual Town Hall to introduce their team of specialists who are delving into the types and levels of pollution that are suspected to be found on Harbor Island. Harbor Island’s legacy is an unfortunate combination of intentional pollution (in the form of an old city dump) and accidental or overlooked impacts of electricity generation and river dredging throughout the years. Among others, the team included a geologist, a toxicologist, a water quality expert, and was in fact interdepartmental, with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services staff also being involved.
The meeting was quite informative and well facilitated by City Manager Pat McGinnis, and while this is not a topic anyone likes to discuss, it is imperative that the City of Grand Haven is fully informed of the volume and severity of legacy pollution. The preliminary reports have found PFAS and PFOA in the majority of sampling wells installed by EGLE, though not all of them tested positive, and one tested within what is considered a safe limit by the state. The Department shared that they had also taken bluegill samples from the Grand River near the site of known contamination, and would have results of the fish testing some time in early 2022.
Many insightful questions were posed by attendees and others during the public comment period, including a suggestion of testing the dredged material dumped on the island by Army Corps of Engineers over the years (it appears this material is tested annually due to current regulations) as well as whether the island itself could be returned to a functional wetland. The latter question resulted in a rather detailed response regarding EGLE’s definition of “wetland,” which surely serves a greater purpose where bookkeeping and reporting is concerned, but may not be entirely relevant to envisioning the future of Harbor Island.
There are various ways we can envision how a functional wetland operates. Wetlands serve a variety of roles in nature, and all of them seem to be needed right now, right here in West Michigan. Hydrologically, wetlands act as filters, and while Harbor Island is currently struggling under the weight of these legacy pollutants, a restored wetland could actually contribute to improved water quality in the aquifer that is under duress in Ottawa County. Continuing on the theme of what wetlands do for water, we know that wetlands can act as buffers when water levels fluctuate, providing places for water to go (other than the shoreline) when meteorological events raise Lake Michigan.
Restored wetlands provide a diversity of plant and animal species with the right kind of habitat to call home. In a recently published study exploring bird biodiversity right here along the Lake Michigan coast, Audubon Society explained that over 300 migratory bird species pass through our shoreline each year, and that the coast of Lake Michigan is a globally recognized Important Bird Area. The report goes on to point out that a 2019 volunteer survey of secretive marsh birds in Ottawa County found Harbor Island one of the most species-rich areas in Ottawa County, in spite of the environmental duress it is under. Just think what it could be with a concerted effort to put natural systems in place to heal the damage incurred over the past 100 years!
When one considers the beneficial impacts that restored wetlands have on humans, in addition to what I’ve already mentioned, it is important to note that birdwatching as a tourist activity has always been popular in West Michigan. To the north, in Muskegon County, the Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Facility is already a well-known destination for birders in the Great Lakes Basin. For those of us who live here and enjoy the outdoors, adding another place that we can explore and steward would be good enough. But there is potential to make Harbor Island and the surrounding coastline to the north and south a well-managed, well-advertised world class birding destination, right here in our backyard. As a city so tied to the flow of tourism, Grand Haven is well equipped to capitalize on an effort to restore Harbor Island to a place that draws more users of the outdoors to experience the beauty and uniqueness of this place that we call home.
There is no denying that news about the pollution and contamination of Harbor Island is dismaying. The reality of the uses of Harbor Island over many decades should make this news no surprise to any of us, however. But in truth, although the damage is done, it is not completely irreparable. If we consider the ways Harbor Island has served the community of Grand Haven through the years - hosting the power plant; serving as a city dump; being a depository for material dredged from the Grand River - we can begin to envision how the island can serve the community differently in this century, by protecting what makes the environment in West Michigan unique while helping anchor more “islands” of wetland restoration along our beautiful, yet vulnerable coast. From Puget Sound to Chesapeake Bay, examples abound of other similar reclamation projects that have myriad benefits with almost no downside, which have helped reverse some of the damage caused by human exploitation and point toward a better future for the plants, animals (and humans) that call our bays, estuaries, and Great Lakes home.
We Need New Glasses