Sunday, October 4, 2009

Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore – Experience The Homestead's Sewage

by Tom Van Zoeren, guest contributor

I hope you got a chance to enjoy some of the Ken Burns series, “Our National Parks: America’s Best Idea” on television this week. It was inspiring seeing the Parks themselves; and also hearing the stories of how Americans have fiercely defended them over the years. You may be interested to know that our own National Park, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, is presently considering how, or whether, to effectively protect National Park lands from sewage spray from The Homestead Resort. Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore is primarily located in Leelanau County, Michigan, and accounts for a vast amount of the total tourism business in the county.

For those who are interested, a short history, summarizing how we got here, follows below. I expect you’ll find it a rather unbelievable tale.


• How it began: At the time of the beginning of Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the vacant acreage next to The Homestead Resort was essentially owned by the same people who owned The Homestead Resort. Like all other undeveloped land within the National Park boundaries, this land was subject to purchase by the National Park Service. However, the owner sold an easement to The Homestead Resort (essentially himself) for $1, allowing for a seepage area on 13 acres of the property. So when the government bought the property, it came encumbered with that easement, thereby skirting the law, and granting The Homestead Resort continued use of the property.

• What the easement said: The Homestead Resort may have a “seepage area” for its sewage system within the 13-acre easement area. At that time, this was, of course, understood to mean an underground system of drain pipes. The above-ground land was to be left as natural as possible.

• What the easement did not say: It did not say that the National Park is obligated to provide for all of The Homestead Resort’s sewage needs—just to provide a place for a seepage area on those 13 acres.

• The early years: For some years, the land was used as intended—Seepage system below ground; trails through the woods and meadows above ground. Because much of the area was not needed for seepage, that area remained covered with forest.

• Problems: Over the years, The Homestead Resort grew, and outgrew its sewage system. Sewage oozed from surrounding ground; there were numerous Michigan Department of Natural Resource permit violations; the groundwater became polluted; citizens complained; lawsuits were filed. Everyone was desperate to resolve the situation.

• Hello, sewage: In 1992 The Homestead Resort announced a plan to clear-cut the remaining forest and utilize the entire area. Anxious to resolve the many problems, but also wanting to preserve the remaining forest, the then-Park-Superintendent unfortunately agreed to a plan to allow for the partially-treated sewage to be irrigated above ground, so the trees could remain.

• More Problems: The National Park Service and the Department of Environmental Quality documented many problems during following years: the system was not maintained properly; sewage was sprayed beyond the boundaries of the easement area; the ground water was again polluted.

• Goodbye, trees: In 2005 The Homestead Resort announced that it had again exceeded its sewage system capacity, and now needed to cut all the trees, replace them with a grass-alfalfa mix, and spray their sewage over the whole area. Park Management now questioned the legality of above-ground irrigation under the easement for a “seepage area”, but was advised by its solicitor (legal advisor) that because “the camel already has its nose in the tent” (meaning the previous superintendent had allowed for above-ground irrigation), it could no longer be prevented.

Anxious to prevent drifting of pathogenic sewage spray into the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, the National Park Service, various environmental organizations, and private citizens requested The Homestead Resort to explore options such as root-zone seepage, drip irrigation, low-profile low-pressure sprinklers, and better pretreatment. The Homestead rejected these options and prepared to install a high-pressure spray system.

• Buffers?: It is universally accepted in the field that, when using high-pressure sprayers, aerosol drift is inevitable. Additionally, winds can blow even the non-aerosolized spray over significant distances. For that reason, a buffer zone of at least 100’ from all property lines is required by state law. The National Park Service requested the Homestead Resort to abide by this safety measure. The Homestead Resort instead made the legal case that easement boundaries are not technically “property lines”. They declined to include the buffers.

• Here it is: In 2006 the remaining forest was clear-cut and a high-pressure spray system was installed to spray sewage up to within a few feet of the easement boundaries. (In the process, the bull-dozers illegally denuded hundreds of feet of National Park land, created wash-outs and silt deposits, etc.)

• But-- Although the solicitor had said that above-ground irrigation could not be prevented per se, he emphasized that any drifting, including aerosol drift, of effluent beyond the easement boundaries would be clearly illegal. This is also stipulated in the DEQ permit for the system.

• Our Sewage: The Homestead Resort’s filtration/disinfection system is considered to be only a “partial” treatment process; the effluent can contain viable pathogens, viral and bacterial, even when the system is working properly. Studies have definitively shown that these pathogens are carried for considerable distances (hundreds of feet in some cases) in aerosol spray. Humans and animals exposed to this aerosol drift are subject to infection (not to mention those who eat the berries and mushrooms in the area). (National Park Service safety guidelines require Park Rangers to wear Tyvek coveralls and full-mask respirators when approaching the area for observation.)

Further, there have been numerous past instances of failure of The Homestead Resort’s disinfection system. One DEQ report stated, “Monitoring reports show that fecal coliform counts have been reported in excess of 6,000 counts per hundred ml (600 times the allowable limit)…bacteria in the spray on land to which the public has access is a public health hazard.”

• To Sum Things Up:
o The easement began as a questionable way to allow for underground disposal on13 acres in the National Park. The land above was to be left as natural as possible—available for trails, etc..
o Above-ground irrigation was later permitted in order to save the remaining forest. (The trails were then abandoned.)
o 12 years later, the forest was razed and replaced with sewage-sprayed rasses and alfalfa. The Homestead Resort effectively assumed all use of the property; the public now cannot enter the property we bought.
o By not providing the buffers needed for sewage spray, The Homestead Resort has also effectively taken control of many additional acres surrounding the easement area (partly in or around the Port Oneida Historic District). The Sleeping Bear National Lakeshore has installed red & white warning signs advising the public against approaching within 25’ of the area. They should include at least 75’ more.

• What Now? Before installing this system, The Homestead Resort was advised by the National Park Service and numerous environmental organizations & individuals that, although we may not be able to say what type of system they can build, we can and will ensure that the law and the public’s rights are upheld: none of their sewage, including aerosolized spray, is allowed in our National Park. Whether they can somehow achieve this with their present spray system, or whether the system needs to be modified, or whether it needs to be replaced—that is up to them. What we and the National Park Service can do is take a stand to ensure that, one way or another, our surrounding Park is not violated.

Thus far, only rough, hit-or-miss monitoring has been done. If you feel that accurate, scientific monitoring is needed as a first step to ensure that Sleeping Bear is again free of The Homestead Resort’s sewage and safe to enjoy, now is the time to let it be known.

The Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore needs to know if you feel that it should be a priority to draw a firm line to protect the National Park from The Homestead Resort’s illegal, pathogenic sewage spray. The first step would be to devise a good, scientific system to sensitively monitor for it. That will take some effort and resources, and it may offend certain interests—so it may not happen if the public doesn’t make it a priority. Now is the time when the direction will be determined. You can contact the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore's Park Superintendent at 231/326-5134.

No comments:

Post a Comment