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Memo sheds light on private well problems during investigation of possible cancer cluster

There is new speculation that West Michigan’s industrial past might be contributing to current concerns about possible cancer clusters. (WWMT Graphics/Denise Schermerhorn)

Amid the flurry of frightened residents living in and around Otsego about a possible cancer cluster, some are doing their own research and investigation into the area’s industrial past, looking for answers.

Those efforts are yielding some interesting documents showing that West Michigan is not immune from the industrial ghosts of Michigan's past.

Newschannel 3’s I-Team first reported in March that state and federal health officials were looking into concerns about cancer and other diseases reported by some in the Otsego area.

Two packed meetings with those officials and residents has since taken place, with health officials asking for information that might help them gain more insight on health problems.

Chris Newland, a former Otsego resident, stepped forward to contribute his personal insight into the situation.

Newland and his family owned farmland near Otsego adjacent to property used by Menasha, the former Otsego packaging factory.

According to Newland, his problems with Menasha go back to the 80s and 90s when, he claimed, they used Menasha land to dump sludge and liquor and the toxins began to seep onto his family’s property.

Newland’s father died from pancreatic cancer, and his neighbor has developed lymphoma.

“Nobody wanted to pursue it back then and if you did you would have been yelled at about jobs,” he said.

Newland has re-booted his research efforts to find answers as attention is being paid to the cancer concerns in the area.

Through a Freedom of Information Act request (FOIA), Newland was able to obtain documents related to Otsego-Menasha Well Contamination/City Wells 1973-1979.

The memos show that Allegan County Health Department was in correspondence with Menasha about potential problems with private wells as a result of waste disposal by the company.

“An informal meeting was held with Mr. Jeff Lubbers of the Allegan County Health Department to discuss the contamination problems with the (redacted) well,” the 1973 internal Menasha memo begins.

“It is important to realize in analyzing these problems that liquor and white water seepage has been occurring for a number of years. Contamination has been picked up in #3, #6, and #7 wells for at least 3 years. Therefore, it is likely that the groundwater at the houses on 106th Street could be contaminated. If this happens we will be obligated to pipe City water to these homes,” the memo continues. “These two sources of contamination provide distinctly separate problems, which have no simple solution,” reads the Menasha document referring to contaminated wells.

The Menasha memos also show that the company decided to hire the Calgon Corporation to fix the problems – applying C-14 dispersant and H-130 Biocide to some of the wells, and later applying H204 Biocides a substitute.

Other documents obtained by Newland show correspondence between the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and technical supervisors at Menasha.

There are several worrisome passages in the memos.

“…numerous modifications were made to the treatment program in a futile attempt to regain control over the worsening situation,” reads part of Menasha’s description of attempts to clean up wells.

“The sample results support our previous conclusions,” reads the letter written by Roger Przybysz, a 1973 Water Quality Investigator for the Water Resources Commission to Menasha.

Menasha has not yet responded to Newschannel 3’s request for comment on this story.

Newland said he once walked out to the former Menasha dump site in 1992 with now-former Menasha Environmental Supervisor Keith Kling, but said Kling seemed uninterested.

“I am still waiting on him to return my calls,” Newland wrote. “He met me in a three-feet erosion area around the clay cap”, Newland continued, referring to the Menasha property. “He saw the damage.”

Neither state or federal health officials have pointed the finger directly at any of the now-closed factories around Otsego as concerns over cancer and other diseases remain, but the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and Michigan Department of Health and Human Services have both been investigating records from both Menasha and the Rock Tenn since worries came to fruition in March.

At the most recent Otsego meeting, those same health officials said they’re gathering data to gain better insight, but caution it could take several months.

LINKS:

*Otsego City Officials note municipal water continues to test in compliance with local, state, and federal drinking water requirements.*

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