NILES — Barbara Walter was nervous about drinking water she could ignite with her cigarette lighter.

In her own little science experiment, she’d fill a Tupperware bowl with water from the kitchen tap, seal it and allow the cloudy water to clear.

Then she would slowly lift the lid from the bowl while holding the flame of the lighter near the opening.


The whoosh of flame meeting gas was startling.

Yet this was the water health officials said was safe for her, her husband and their sons to drink.

 For years, water tests came back showing only trace amounts of methane gas and chemicals that were leaking into their well from the nearby Terminal Road Landfill.

Then last month, Walter said she found a business card from a Van Buren/Cass County health department worker stuck in her front door.

On the back of the card, it read: “We sampled your water and you need to stop drinking it. Please call me in the morning between 8:30 and 10:30.”

Within days, as subsequent tests showed increasing concentrations of hazardous solvents, the family was provided state-funded bottled water for drinking, cooking and bathing.

“They say I can still use it to wash dishes,” Walter said, “but I have to wear rubber gloves — and then I’m eating off those dishes. It’s terrible.”

State funds tentatively have been approved for a new well, which may be drilled as soon as next week.

Funding woes The Walter family experience isn’t unique in southwestern Michigan and across the state.

Michigan’s environmental cleanup program is supposed to protect drinking water that’s threatened by thousands of sites where toxic chemicals have seeped into soils and groundwater. But limited funds mean the Department of Environmental Quality focuses first on the most dangerous sites, leaving open the chance that other sites will grow worse — as the Walter family’s experience shows can quickly happen.

“A site doesn’t take priority until it moves to this kind of mode,” DEQ analyst Cora Rubitschun said of the rapid rise in concentrations of toxic chemicals in the Walters’ well that led to the health department warning.

In Allegan County, residents in the Lake Doster area drank bottled water for years when Kavco Landfill problems flared. But residents’ concerns didn’t end there, even with installation of an alternate water supply. The most recent issue — explosive levels of methane gas built up underneath homes on Doster Road — required installation of a venting system at the landfill.

“It makes it very difficult to stay on top of these things, because there’s only so much money to go around,” said Rubitschun, who works in the DEQ’s water protection unit in Lansing. “That (money) has to be prioritized to go to the worst sites.”

Compounding the funding problems is an $80 million shortfall for cleanups next year, with no immediate solution in sight. DEQ officials are taking their plea for funds to local governments, redevelopment authorities, service clubs and anyone else who will listen.

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