Officials to meet for Otsego health concerns

By: 
Ryan Lewis, Editor

State and local health officials will meet with concerned citizens in Otsego on Saturday, April 14, to discuss local environmental data.

The meeting answers local pleas for an investigation into the causes for what local citizens claimed were health problems due to years of pollution by paper mills along the Kalamazoo River and illegal dumping.

The meeting will be from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at Otsego United Methodist Church, 223 East Allegan St.

“This meeting will allow citizens the opportunity to meet with staff from the different agencies. Questions may be asked directly to those agencies and information pertaining to specific concerns can be addressed in a more private venue,” said Allegan County Health Officer, Angelique Joynes.

Staff from the health department, Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will discuss the available data and outline what comes next in the investigation.

Joynes said technical staff has had a chance to review the available data on the area’s environmental conditions. The review included air quality reports, past environmental investigations and cleanups, municipal water testing results and health information related to the Otsego area.

The meeting comes a month after officials met with residents March 10. That, in turn, had followed a local effort on the Facebook page “Justice for Otsego” to encourage the public to fill out an online survey for those who have a rare medical condition or cancer diagnosis. The survey is still active; personal information is not required. It can be completed by visiting www.surveymonkey.com/r/BTW9SWZ.

On April 14, the question-and-answer sessions will run from 10 to 11 a.m. and noon to 1 p.m. The agencies will present their review of the data from 11 a.m. to noon.

Otsego city manager Aaron Mitchell read a statement Monday, April 2, saying, “I think everyone respects the passion and sincerity of the Justice for Otsego group members... The City of Otsego understands there are many unanswered questions many residents still have.

He said city officials recently mailed out a flyer with information about the city water’s source and the testing done on it.

“The city... is working to be part of the solution, wherever possible,” Mitchell said, noting they will be on-hand April 14 to answer questions as well.

He also hopes to work with community members and the DEQ and EPA to bring in a series of speakers to further educate the community about the issues the Justice for Otsego has raised.

Joynes, in an update to the Allegan County Board of Commissioners March 22, explained that while the health department did some of the water testing for the DEQ, that agency was in charge of reviewing the data.

She said the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services was studying the data provided by the Facebook group’s survey—something she believes was sped up by the thousands of responses the survey collected.

“The EPA is working on going through the Superfund data,” she said, noting that several spots in Allegan County had that designation—so noted as being flagged for special federal cleanup efforts, albeit bogged down by decades-long investigations. “And they got feedback from (the March 10) meeting on potential illegal dumping sites. They’re looking at that and mapping that out.

“MDEQ is going out and investigating whether those are truly illegal dumping sites, and they’re also looking at the data on all the wells in that area.”

She said recent municipal water quality testing between 2009 and 2015 did not show any PCB or similar chemicals. PCB’s are categorized by the EPA as likely cancer-causing agents and have been found in varying concentrations in the banks of the Kalamazoo River. Recent cleanup efforts in Otsego and Plainwell have removed sediment to keep the chemical from eroding into the water and collecting in fish.

Joynes said the city, due for a detailed round of testing anyway, has been ordered by DEQ to test again, but the results will take several weeks.

“A few private citizens have paid to have their water tested,” she said. “One paid for expedited results and there were non-detects for all those chemicals.”

Commissioner Max Thiele asked what it would take to trigger a full investigation of the causes of the illnesses.

Joynes said it would ultimately take considerable funding and time to go through that process.

“But we can’t wait for a health assessment that may take a couple years,” she said, which is why agencies are working to see if water can be ruled out as a source of contamination.

“This will be long-term process of looking at data to determine any contamination and then determine next steps.”

For updates on this subject, visit the Allegan County Health Department’s website, www.allegancounty.org/health.

 

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