Delisted: Restoring White Lake

Tags: GLRI, Great Lakes, toxic, Water, water quality, White Lake

By Tanya Cabala of the White Lake Public Advisory Council

Last year, decades of persistence by grassroots citizens paid off in a big way for the White Lake area in northern Muskegon County.

The White Lake area, on the West Michigan shoreline in northern Muskegon County, was a sleepy, but scenic resort community when it embraced the chemical manufacturing era in the 1950s. The people who lived there appreciated the well-paying jobs and newfound prosperity, but ended up paying a steep price when pollution from some of the companies damaged White Lake and put the community in the national spotlight as a poster child for pollution in the late 1970s.

Fortunately, citizen activists raised the alarm about the pollution issues, to the dismay of some local leaders and businesses.  They were eventually joined by more members of the community and initiated cleanup efforts.  But more was still needed.

In 1985, White Lake was designated a Great Lakes Area of Concern due to its pollution problems, one of 43 "toxic hotspots" in the Great Lakes (fourteen here in Michigan). The 1972 Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement between the U.S. and Canada, called for the two federal governments to work with the states and Canadian provinces, as well as residents in the effected areas, to develop Remedial Action Plans (RAPs) or cleanup plans for each of the forty three.

The State of Michigan completed an RAP for White Lake in 1987. But no further actions were planned to address the lingering legacy of pollution. In 1992, a group of White Lake area residents established the White Lake Public Advisory Council (PAC) to work with local, state and federal partners to finish restoring White Lake to health.

The PAC monitored polluted sites and held public meetings to spur action and get effective cleanups. The community was fortunate to be supported by key partners, including the Muskegon Conservation District and the GVSU Annis Water Resources Institute.

After conducting several studies, setting priorities, and holding countless community meetings, White Lake was ready for action when funds from the federal Great Lakes Restoration Initiative were available in 2010. White Lake was first in line, obtaining over $2 million to address lakewide habitat restoration – helping to remove several of the remaining impairments.  The last polluted sediment cleanup was conducted in the spring of 2014. And in the Fall, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency officially delisted White Lake as an Area of Concern! Suffice it to say this small, Michigan community celebrated in a big way!

Local residents were key to the White Lake success story. Everyone was in it together -- some were involved in the bureaucratic process, some attended public meetings, some wrote letters, and others reached out to elected leaders – but it was all crucial for the future of White Lake. Along with local, state and federal partners, local residents came together for the good of their natural resources. It was not easy and it took many years, but what an incredible accomplishment for this small community of hardworking Michiganders!

Even better news?  Other communities can do this as well.  Visit Restoring White Lake for more information.

Photo Credit: Laura Neubauer Connell

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