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From 'dead zone' to 'delisting': Ken Mahoney on cleaning up White Lake

Ken Mahoney at White Lake

In the late 1970s, Ken Mahoney’s mother-in-law and his four-year-old daughter were picketing outside of Hooker Chemical near White Lake in Muskegon County. The sign they were holding read, ‘Mama, don’t let them bring any more stinky stuff here.’

“The company not only had been directly polluting the lake, but they were trucking in pollutants from [another company] from the other side of the state,” says Mahoney. “That’s where that all came about.”

And that protest is what ignited a nearly 50-year involvement in cleaning up White Lake.

Mahoney grew up and went to school in Montague, the town nearest the lake. After attending the University of Chicago with additional schooling at the University of California at Santa Barbara and earning his bachelor’s degree, he returned to his home area and became a math teacher at Holton High School in Muskegon County.

He's now retired after teaching for 30 years in the district and has become even more heavily involved in the community. He serves as a county commissioner for District 9 in Muskegon County and is an active member of the White Lake Environmental Network.

It was a few years after that protest, in 1978, that a huge dump site at Hooker Chemical was discovered, Mahoney says.

“My wife and I got involved in addressing that issue. They were fined and eventually closed,” he says.

Through its pollutants reaching White Lake, Hooker created what was called a ‘dead zone’ in the lake where nothing was living on the bottom.

“The tannery across the lake was another situation,” says Mahoney. “They basically made a mess of things. There were chrome contaminants. They had some lagoons where they soaked hides in to take the hair off,  full of contaminants.

“That was a big impetus to get involved. At the time, we had young children and wanted it to be better for them.”

Once he got involved with the two major sources of pollution to the lake, Mahoney says it was easier to have more concern for the whole lake and all the issues it had – including nutrient loading, habitat loss, and harm to fish populations, among others.

“I got involved in the environmental movement,” he says.

After Hooker Chemical and the tannery pollution had created serious environmental contamination in the area, White Lake was declared an Area of Concern (AOC) by the International Joint Commission (IJC) and a Remedial Action Plan (RAP) to clean up the AOC was developed. To move the RAP forward, a public advisory council was formed, and Mahoney became its vice chair.

Now, after 22 years of work to clean up the lake and its surroundings, White Lake has been delisted from the list of the most toxic “hot spots” in the Great Lakes region, and Mahoney couldn’t be prouder.

“The AOC focused some grant money and efforts from the federal and state governments to address the issues in the AOC,” he says. “EPA was pushing pretty hard to get us delisted. That gave us the focus to address all the beneficial use impairments – at least, to some level.”

The Great Lakes Restoration Initiative provided funds to dredge the “dead zone” which helped delist the degradation of benthos BUI. The program also supported a shoreline restoration project to help address fish and wild impairments.

Now that White Lake has been delisted, those kinds of funds will no longer be available to it.

“It’s kind of a ‘catch 22,'” says Mahoney. “If you’re in the AOC program, you get a lot of federal and state monies to fix things, but once you’re delisted it disappears.”

But Mahoney and the rest of the dedicated people he worked with to delist the AOC are not done.

“That’s why we formed the White Lake Environmental Network – to watch nutrient loads, the sediment coming down the river – things to try to keep the lake healthy,” he says. “We just want to make sure that we don’t go backward.”

Through a grant from NOAA, the City of Whitehall purchased some of the farms upriver and the City of Montague is looking at possibly doing the same. Some of the old upland farms in what are known as the “muck flats” once grew celery. Farmers diked it off years ago and pumped water out to the fields that they had put pesticides and fertilizers on which ended up back in the river.

“We want to return it to the original wetlands they once were so they filter sediments and contaminants coming down the White River,” Mahoney says. “It should help the lake regarding halting weed growth from nutrients.”

Mahoney realizes that it’s going to be an ongoing project to try to protect White Lake. In that vain, Mahoney’s group worked hard to get a countywide ordinance passed in 2010 to prevent phosphorus and fertilizer from reaching and adding to the nutrients in the lake.

Of all their accomplishments in cleaning up White Lake, Mahoney is proudest of it finally being delisted as an AOC.

“It was a long, complicated process,” he says. I was pretty much involved all 22 years in trying to get that process moved forward. The impact on the community now is that when you say ‘White Lake,' it’s not a black mark on the map anymore.”

And he is still thinking forward.

“We want to keep the younger generation aware of the fact that it can easily slip into a mess if you don’t watch it.” 

This series about restoration in Michigan's Areas of Concern is made possible through support from the Michigan Office of Great Lakes through Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.
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