A ‘toxic lake’ no more: Decades of pollution washed from White Lake

MONTAGUE, Mich. – A West Michigan lake once made national headlines for all the wrong reasons.  Years of pollution put White Lake at the top of a ‘Toxic hot list’ in 1985.

Now that lake is said to cleaned up and will be removed as an “Area of Concern” in the eyes of the Environmental Protection Agency.

The pollution came in the 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s, according to Tanya Cabala, a member of White Lake Public Advisory Council. She said chemicals from a tannery, DuPont Chemical, and Hooker Chemical facilities can be blamed for the deterioration of White Lake.

Phil Manthei grew up swimming and eating the fish that came from the waters of the White Lake. At the time, he had no idea the extent of pollution.

“I noticed what pollution was there only when they started to clean it up,” he said as he put his fishing boat into the lake at a boat launch in Montague.

But pollution was noticed by state health officials and the EPA. “Things like loss of fish and wildlife habitat,” said Cabala.

Almost overnight, White Lake became a poster child for all the wrong reasons. “For toxic pollution,” said Cabala.  “A very small little resort community, and people had fears for eating the fish and swimming in the lake.”

Getting on the EPA list was bad, she said, but it also sparked a change in the community.  At first, cleanup was slow, with little to no funding.

Then in 2010, a $2.1 million grant from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative made a big impact.

“There was a specific program aimed at giving us a cleanup boost,” she said.  “To get out of this serious condition.”

Delisting, she said, would be the next step to remove the pollution stigma for good.

Some argue the move would also clear the way for economic growth in the area, especially for business owners like Steven Crooks, who owns White Lake Excursions.

“We’ve been fighting that stigma for quite some time,” he said.  “Having this delisted is very important, especially for a business like myself that caters to people that play in the water.”

The scope of the undertaking is not lost of those who have been involved in the clean-up. “This is a huge success story of government working,” said Cabala.  “We had state and federal environmental agencies working for 22 years.  That is a pretty cooperative story.”

For those like Manthei who lived along the White Lake their entire lives, this delisting is a chance to share their lake with pride.

“I think it’s great because I think more people will be enjoying the lake more,” he said.

While the state agencies have signed off on the delisting process, Cabala said they are still awaiting an official ruling from the Canada.  That is expected to some down sometime this fall.

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