Food Processing Wastewater Problems In Western Michigan

Hard boiled eggs turn black in the shell, you are forced to use bottled
water to shower, and townspeople in your community have stomach
ailments in such numbers that something must be happening. You finally f
ind out that your well has been compromised; in fact your entire town’s groundwater has been tainted with arsenic and other heavy metals.
Sounds like something out of a made-for-television movie, doesn’t it?
It’s reality for several towns in Western Michigan.

You might expect to find that there was a corporate culprit, a
metal forging operation or a smelter that was dumping waste illegally.
In that, you’d be wrong. In this case it’s a Bird’s Eye Foods facility
and a Minute Maid juice plant. The Bird’s Eye plant processes and
packages apple, cherry and blueberry sauces, glazes and other fruit-
based products; the Minute Maid facility processes and cans fruit
juice and juice drinks. Before you jump to a conclusion and convince
yourself that these plants are adding something to your food, they a
ren’t. What they are doing actually sounds environmentally friendly,
on the surface.

About 40 years ago, the food processing facilities began to spray their
process waste water on their fields. It seemed like a good thing to do;
the fields get added nutrients from the shredded husks and pits left over
after the fruit was processed and the local municipalities didn’t need to
deal with additional untreated sewage. It seemed like it was a real win-win situation. That is, until the problems began. It began in the 1980’s
with unpleasant odors coming from the well water. Now the problems
include orange slime in the pipes, iron-oxide patinas on anything that
comes in contact with groundwater and even one young man’s death
from gastric cancer (a rare form of the cancer, to be sure) is being
blamed on the contamination.

Currently, some 50 families in Fennville, MI, live near a plume of
groundwater allegedly contaminated with metals that spread from
the local Birds Eye processing plant. At a nearby Minute Maid juice
plant, in Paw Paw, there’s another plume. In these rural west
Michigan towns, it appears that the food processors have sprayed so
much wastewater onto fields that heavy metals seeped into groundwater, contaminating wells. Elevated levels of iron, arsenic, manganese and
other potentially toxic substances have been detected in the
groundwater of these two communities. State officials have known
of the polluting for at least a decade but have moved slowly.

It turned out that the old adage, “too much of a good thing is bad”
is quite true when it comes to spraying the fields with fruit remains.
In the 1960s, both operations started disposing of their production
wastewater by spraying it onto local fields, just as other food
companies did for years. It was believed that the salt, sugar and
other organic matter in the wastewater would restore nutrients to
the soil, while the impurities would be filtered out as the wastewater
percolated down through the dirt and into aquifers. What happened
was unexpected; scientists now understand that the wastewater
had high concentrations of organic matter that robbed the soil of
oxygen, causing naturally occurring metals that had been attached
to soil particles to be released into groundwater.

The Minute Maid facility, which is owned by Coca-Cola, stopped
spraying in 2001 after opening a $7 million wastewater treatment
facility. The company continues to monitor the groundwater and is
working with the State of Michigan. The company has installed new
wells for some residents in the area, but problems still persist. The
Bird’s Eye facility is still spraying, though it has proposed a $3.5 million
upgrade to its existing wastewater treatment facility. Bird’s Eye has also attempted to offer restitution by installing new wells for residents.

It’s fair to say that no one though that cherry pits and apple skins
would cause so many problems but this is a stark reminder that
unintended consequences can be severe. Environmental impact
studies can and should be used to evaluate well-intentioned efforts
so that this situation is not repeated.