Cleanup to begin at Torch Lake gasoline contamination site

Posted on February 5, 2010

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This story was published in this week’s Elk Rapids News.  If you’ve already read it, thanks, and we’ll see you over here tomorrow.  For those of you who missed it, probably because you’re in Florida or Arizona for the winter, this is your chance to catch up.  Jack Norris of Torch Lake Township has researched this issue extensively, beginning in 1989.  He was kind enough to share his files with me, and has suggested some corrections to the story as it ran; those corrections are incorporated here.  — G.S.  

Dennis Schneider and Deb Comber own Fudge Galore.  They would like to open a retail shop in Torch Lake Village where they could sell their fudge.  The problem is, the well on the property is contaminated with gasoline.**See correction below**  Chris and Sonny Szejbach own Sonny’s Torch Lake Market in the village.  They have their wells tested several times each year.  So far, they have tested clean, but it’s a worry.  The gasoline has been there in the aquifer under the village for nearly 40 years.

**Correction: The existing Schneider/Comber well is not contaminated.  It is a shallow well, acceptable by Health Department regulations for a residential well, but with insufficient capacity to pass muster for a well serving a commercial property open to the public.  Because the property is contaminated, and because two other wells in the immediate vicinity were contaminated, any new well will have to meet special requirements designed to prevent it from becoming contaminated.  Those requirements are prohibitively expensive. 

Last May AECOM, a private international engineering and environmental consulting firm with offices in Lansing, was retained by the DEQ to monitor wells in the area and come up with a cleanup plan.  In January Torch Lake property owners received a notice from AECOM that the cleanup would begin this month.

How gasoline got into the drinking water, and where it went 

Nearly 40 years ago a pipe leading from the underground gasoline storage tank at the Standard Service Station in Torch Lake Village began to leak.  Drip, drip—25 gallons per day, 9125 gallons per year.  The gasoline seeped through the sandy Antrim County soil until it reached the water table.  Gasoline is lighter than water.  It floats on top of it, like one of those fancy layered cocktails.  Benzene, toluene, lead.  No one knew that the tank was leaking.  Drip, drip, drip.

The service station changed hands a couple of times and became the Way Service Station.  Drip, drip, drip.

In 1978 Paul Stroebel, who lived in Torch Lake Village, reported that his drinking water well was spitting gasoline.  The Michigan Department of Public Health took samples and confirmed the contamination.  The DNR drilled test holes and found that it was likely the underground gasoline storage tanks were leaking.  In 1979 the tanks were uncovered and the leak discovered.

Way’s insurance company paid to cap the Stroebel well and to dig a deeper one.  The 1979 reports in DNR files indicate variously that the service station’s tanks were repaired or removed.  EPA reports from the time indicate likely widespread groundwater degradation and foresee possible future well contamination.  The case was marked Source Unknown, Case Cancelled. 

The service station was closed.  Eventually the building became Bob Hybl’s gift shop.  In 1985 gasoline came out of the faucets in the gift shop.  The well was condemned and capped.  In the course of drilling a new well, the driller encountered gasoline.  The new well was capped.  A third well was drilled.  

The gasoline plume expanded to the southwest, contaminating a community well at the Bay Harbor Club residential development on Grand Traverse Bay.  That well, too, was capped and replaced at considerable expense.  There were anecdotal reports of cancer: Paul Stroebel, Bob Hybl, Kathy Terrell.  A cancer cluster study was inconclusive.

A major residential development planned for the Torch Lake Club site now occupied by the Day Park was halted in large part because construction plans could have channeled the gasoline plume directly into Torch Lake.

And still the gasoline plume floats there, on top of the groundwater between Torch Lake and Grand Traverse Bay.  Now the cleanup is to begin.

Next week: How the cleanup will proceed

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