Health concerns linger in Otsego but city officials say water is not the cause

OTSEGO, Mich. — When Aaron Mitchell became city manager last month, he was informed by a few people at city hall about the Justice For Otsego group, he said. He’s since been learning about the group’s mission to seek answers regarding the growing health concerns in the area. He’s even had "good conversations" with a few concerned residents that have walked through his door.

“Anybody can listen to any of the stories [and] they’re, they’re heartbreaking,” Mitchell said during an interview at his office. “I can’t say that I wouldn’t be doing the exact same thing if I was in their position.”

Justice for Otsego was created in early March by former resident Mary Zack, who was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was 17 years old. She told FOX 17 in a previous interview that since that time, over the last 20 years, she's seen many people — relatives, classmates, friends and neighbors — from Otsego battle cancer or a disease. So she created the group to get some answers.

“I’d be trying to do all that I can,” Mitchell said. “I think the struggle is going to be is that it’s not going to be a quick answer.”

One thing Mitchell said he continues to see on the group's Facebook page or hear from people is that the source to all the health issues may stem from the drinking water. He believes that’s not the case.

“Some people have thought that we pull water right out the Kalamazoo River and that’s not true,” he said. “We pull from 90-to-120 feet below ground in the second aquifer.”

He added that the City of Otsego’s water is tested annually, especially since the Clean Water Act of the 1970s. He wrote in a letter to the public that once every three years, the water goes through "major detailed testing"  through the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He stated that Otsego "has alway met or exceeded all federal and state drinking water requirements."

“The water’s not toxic,” Mitchell said. “There’s no contamination with our water.”

Residents, like Chris Newland, said he thinks the source may be the water quality from decades ago. He lived in Otsego between 1970 and 1993 and remembers seeing dumping in town.

“I saw big ponds of black, mother liquor,” said Newland who thinks they came from an old paper mill. “It was dark, caramelly mother liquor because we would skip a stone across it.”

He said he saw the mother liquor — or liquid chemical waste — on the sandhills just north of town. He recalled that they formed a “moonscape sludge” that no one dared to walk in, he said. However he always wondered how it all happened and has since done some research.

“I found out a little bit more this week and that 10 homes were contaminated on the hill road area by these ponds,” said Newland pointing to documents he obtained from City Hall. “Maybe some of the city wells at the time were affected.”

Newland showed FOX 17 the documents he acquired via the Freedom of Information Act from city offices. They are meeting notes from 1975 that state the city’s approval to supply water to ten homes near a paper mill that have contaminated wells.

“Something happened,” said Newland. “Something happened long ago and it got dismissed because they didn’t have the testing back then to detect what was going on.”

Saturday, the city is holding a meeting with residents and the Justice for Otsego group to discuss some of their concerns. Newland said he’ll be there and believes at least 200 other people will attend, many of them voicing the same concerns.

“I’m really excited for this meeting on Saturday,” said Mitchell. “This is the point where we’re going to start getting some direction from the Allegan County Health Department.”

The DEQ and Environmental Protection Agency also plan on attending the 10 a.m. meeting at the United Methodist Church, said Mitchell. He expects that a plan will be put in place on what the next steps are. He’s also hoping that everyone conducts themselves civilly.

“I think the word patience is going to be laid down quite a bit because we’re going to need patience,” he said. “I mean ‘cause I guarantee you these people want to know exactly what happened. That’s not going to happen overnight.”

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