2017-08-17 / Front Page

Methane blamed on sawmill

By Eric Carlson
Of The Enterprise staff

METHANE GAS was detected in soil near the Harbor West Marina Village condominiums in Greilickville and is being “mitigated” by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. METHANE GAS was detected in soil near the Harbor West Marina Village condominiums in Greilickville and is being “mitigated” by the federal Environmental Protection Agency. It appears that the site of the first steam-powered sawmill in the Grand Traverse region is still letting off air.

Or, more precisely, methane.

The federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) along with state and local officials are working to mitigate the presence of methane gas at a site within the Harbor West Condominiums in Greilickville.

The area of concern is located on private property near the entrance of the Harbor West Marina Village off the east side of M-22 (South West Bay Shore Drive) opposite the end of Cherry Bend Road (County Road 633),

The site was the location of a saw mill in the late 1800’s that burned down in 1907. Officials said that sawdust and lumber debris buried in a small area of the property may be the source of the gas.

“Soil probes into that area indicates the presence of methane gas, likely the product of decomposition of the wood debris,” according to a statement released by Elmwood Township Fire Chief Keith Tampa in coordination with the EPA and the private property owners.

The EPA has been operating several “test wells” in the area for many years in connection with cleanup and continued monitoring of an environmentally-contaminated “Superfund” site about 2,000 feet away on Cherry Bend Road. A one-acre parcel just west of the Grand Traverse Regional Arts Campus (GTRAC) on Cherry Bend Road was once the site of a dry-cleaning facility that discharged contaminants into the soil.

It’s unclear whether methane gas now being detected on the other side of M-22 is related to contamination at the Superfund site. EPA officials said they’re investigating whether contamination in groundwater from the Superfund site is playing a role in generating methane gas in the soil at Harbor West.

The EPA added the property on Cherry Bend Road to its list of “Superfund” sites in 1984. In 2014 the EPA completed environmental mitigation of the site, including the removal of tons of contaminated soil. Some of the groundwater was contaminated, however, and is still being monitored. As part of continued monitoring of the site, EPA dug several test wells nearby, one of which is near the Harbor West condominiums.

During routine monitoring of test wells and probing soil in the area, EPA contractors earlier this year detected the presence of methane gas in the soil.

“To date, methane has only been identified at potentially dangerous levels within soil gas (underground),” according to a statement released Wednesday morning by the EPA, in response to queries from the Leelanau Enterprise.

The EPA “has not found methane concentrations at or near the dangerous level,” according to the EPA statement.

Fire Chief Tampa explained that methane gas is flammable but is dangerous only if it is trapped in an enclosed area.

“There is no danger to the public,” Tampa said.

However, an area around the site where methane gas was detected has been cordoned off and “caution” signs posted. Soils in the area are very wet because part of the area is used to handle storm water runoff from nearby parking lots.

The EPA has dispatched a senior “incident commander and on-scene coordinator” to lead efforts to “mitigate” the site. He is Traverse Citybased Ralph Dollhopf.

Earlier this week, Elmwood Township officials were approached by Dollhopf and other EPA officials about setting up a “field office” in the former Elmwood Township Fire Hall on Cherry Bend Road directly opposite the “Superfund” site and GTRAC’s “Leelanau Studios” building.

At its regular monthly meeting Monday evening, the Elmwood Township Board authorized township Clerk Connie Preston to collect $800 per month from the EPA for use of office space in the old fire hall. The building has been used mostly for storage for the past decade.

Tampa said he did not know how long EPA or its contractors would be on scene to “mitigate” the site where methane gas was detected on the Harbor West property, or what, exactly, “mitigation” would entail.

The EPA statement released Wednesday morning indicated that EPA will continue to “restrict access to areas of elevated methane to ensure that dangerous levels within occupied structures do not develop.

“EPA is also working with residential owners and public safety officials on a plan to remove gas buildup within the area in the short term,” according to the statement from the EPA press office in Chicago.

Dollhopf, it turns out, has a storied history in the EPA. He was the senior on-scene “incident commander” at the Enbridge oil spill in the Kalamazoo River in 2010. He was also among EPA personnel responding to the World Trade Center site in New York following a terrorist attack in 2001, the U.S. Postal Service anthrax scare in 2003 and recovery of the wreckage of the space shuttle Discovery 2003.

The Harbor West Marina Village condominium land also has a storied history. In 1862, it became the site of the first steam-powered sawmill in the region. Named the Greilick Mills, the site was the namesake of Godfrey Greilick who died in an accident on the site in 1874, and for whom the unincorporated village of Greilickville is named.

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