After a century of use for saw milling, 60 years as a municipal dump site and 70 years as a coal-fired power plant, the city of Grand Haven is making a push to renew Harbor Island and restore it to productive use.
When the city-owned Board of Light & Power decommissioned its Sims 3 power plant in 2020, site testing revealed coal ash contamination and much more on the island. Samples showed traces of many unexpected contaminants, including PFAS chemicals that have threatened drinking water supplies in West Michigan for the past decade.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s website, PFAS chemicals are widely used, long-lasting chemicals, components of which break down very slowly over time. Scientific studies have shown that exposure to some PFAS in the environment may be linked to harmful health effects in humans and animals. There are thousands of PFAS chemicals, and they are found in many different consumer, commercial and industrial products. This makes it challenging to study and assess the potential human health and environmental risks.
In Grand Haven, city officials say they are taking no risks, and in February a contract was signed with HDR, an international environmental sciences firm with offices in Ann Arbor. The firm will assemble and assess data collected so far, submit required reporting to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), discover and fill data gaps, and begin working on a complete corrective plan to resolve all health and environmental risks on Harbor Island.
Part of the engagement includes creating a brand identity to attract public interest and establish a comprehensive communications plan to keep partner agencies at EGLE and EPA informed, to make sure elected officials at the BLP and the City Council are kept current, and maintain clarity and transparency with the public.
Grand Haven Public Works Director Derek Gajdos is the project manager for the city, and he said this has jumped to the top of his priority list.
“The stakes couldn’t be higher,” he said. “Our drinking water, along with the drinking water for millions of people in West Michigan, is drawn from Lake Michigan. If contaminated, we could impact much more than just our city island.”
The city has created a logo and a slogan for the effort: “Work today, protect tomorrow.”
City Manager Pat McGinnis echoed Gajdos’ commitment to getting the job done in the short term, and said a revitalized Harbor Island could have many uses.
“It could be natural open space, a park or some private use,” McGinnis said. “But our direction is clear – we must resolve the issues in our time and not leave this mess behind for others.”
A plan with cost estimates should be ready for discussion by the end of 2022, and depending on funding availability, due care measures could begin early next year. McGinnis said all attention is focused on defining and correcting past uses. Future use and how it will be financed are secondary to protecting the public health and the environment.
“We’ve met with representatives from all of our elected officials in Washington and Lansing, and they have all pledged to work with us to renew Harbor Island,” the city manager said. “The staff at EGLE are an incredible resource and they are as committed to Harbor Island renewal as we are. Such partnerships are essential if we are to succeed.”