How one environmentalist is leading the charge to clean up the polluted Muskegon Lake

This piece is made possible through a partnership with the Great Lakes Commission and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with support from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

Dennis Kirksey has deep roots in Muskegon. But growing up, he never questioned the pollution in the area. That changed when the community began cleaning up its waterways in the 1980s. He began to wonder why things got to be this way in his hometown—and how they could be better.

Today he's at the leading edge of Muskegon's future, serving as Chair of the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership, which serves as the Public Advisory Council for the Muskegon Lake Area of Concern (AOC). Kirksey has been integral to promoting ecological restoration work along the Muskegon Lake shoreline through the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. The shoreline projects, funded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency, includes work to restore native habitat on Kirksey's investment company's property.

Habitat restoration is an important part of removing nine beneficial use impairments on Muskegon Lake, which is one of 43 federal Great Lakes AOCs deemed the "worst of the worst" when it comes to legacy industrial pollution. A beneficial use impairment is a change in the biological, chemical or physical integrity of the ecosystem that prevents beneficial uses such as fishing, swimming, drinking water use and more. Once all impairments have been removed, the lake will be “delisted,” or removed from the program, something advocates hope will happen by 2018. You can find out more about the AOC program and Muskegon Lake here.

Kirksey says that a healthy environment is critical to future development along Muskegon Lake. That's why developers like Kirksey and organizations like the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission are partnering on ecological restoration--to help lay the groundwork for a vibrant future.

Kirksey's focus has been on balancing environmental and business interests to make sure both are sustainable and support community growth. Second Wave talked to him about his journey growing up in the area and how he came to appreciate the value of cleaning up the environment.

This interview is lightly edited for clarity.

Second Wave: You grew up in the area. Tell us a little about your family history in Muskegon.

Dennis Kirksey: My mother lived in the Muskegon area all of her life, and my father moved from the south after he got out of the service after World War II. They decided that Michigan was the place to plant our family. From the time I was born, I've always lived in Muskegon and the Muskegon area. Growing up it was hunting, fishing, outdoors-type of family and we really enjoyed the outdoors—my dad especially. So growing up, the Muskegon River or on Lake Michigan was where I had my fondest memories as a child. Because of all of that, my own family has been raised here. We may travel here and there throughout the country, but we always end up bouncing back to Muskegon.

SW: While you were growing up hunting and fishing and the things that gave you the great memories, how aware were you of the pollution in Muskegon Lake?

DK: Growing up, I was an impressionable child of the 1960s. The industrial machine that was Muskegon at that time was cranking at full capacity, and I thought it was just normal, the way things operated, which weren't necessarily good. We're still paying the price for a lot of the industrial practices and contamination that occurred during that period, but I think because I was growing up in it, I thought that was normal. Not that I ever witnessed barrels being dumped or anything like that, but the heavy industry was mainstream.

Our shoreline was just completely covered with massive industrial users. I hate to say it, but Muskegon Lake was viewed as a dumping grounds. I don't know that we recognized it as that. It was brown, and we thought it was normal being brown.

SW: At what point did your perception of pollution being normal start to shift?

DK: I didn't really feel a shift until probably in the 1980s, when Muskegon County opted for a new wastewater system, which at the time was leading edge. Of course we had a lot of industry, so their thinking was "Hey, we need to not only take care of the residential use, but we've got to take care of the commercial and industrial users as well."

That was an eye-opener for me, because I had to ask myself why they needed a new wastewater system. It seemed like it was a good thing, but why was it needed? I think that was a turning point for me, and for the water body. Once we had a place to handle that effluent on a large scale, it took a lot of pollution out of the water body. The lake started changing at that point.

It was a real turning point for the community as well. At one point we had this notorious moniker of being one of the most chemically contaminated sites anywhere in the country. We had more than our fair share of chemical industries that were probably the biggest culprits as far as breaking the law and doing nasty stuff to the environment. Their standard practices were just not anything that you'd accept today.

My father was a general contractor, so I've poured a lot of concrete, built a lot of walls in those chemical plants. Seeing what was actually going on during the late 70s, early 80s opened my eyes to what was really happening around me. It was a process to get to that point, but it was about that time I started to realize that maybe there's a better way than what we're doing. I don't really think it was until probably the 90s when I started to think ”Okay, now what do I do about it? How do I start to implement it personally?”

Learn more about the Muskegon Lake project in this video:


SW: How did you start getting involved in the work to clean up Muskegon Lake?

DK: When the Area of Concern program rolled out [in the 1990s], one of the things that had to happen early in that process was they needed to set goals and guidelines with an end in sight, so we know we've arrived at restoration. That was a dynamic, public process as far as bringing as many people from all diverse backgrounds and walks of life together to try to really come up with an obtainable goal, something so that you could say, "Okay, how many acres of fill removal, or how much wetland restoration, or what do we have to do with the aesthetics, what do we have to do with water quality?"

It wasn't until the 2000s where I got involved and started to say, "Okay, maybe we need to be little more focused on what can we do as a community."

A lot of the people involved were coming purely from an environmental perspective, which was a  good thing, but not the whole picture. You could come up with a really high-end, lofty environmental plan and have it not be obtainable, because you didn't balance it with real life development, things that will occur with or without you.  At the time, much of the business community just wasn't active and involved. It was at that point that I got involved.

At first, it was somewhat self-preservation for our family-owned business and property assets, because one of the things the group was looking at was the historic fill on the lake. There's such a large part of Muskegon Lake that's been filled in. We own one of the sites with historic fill.

The thought process they were going through at that public meeting was, "We just need to go in and dredge all of that fill out." But that fill is land; it's deeded property. I listened to what they had to say and then raised my hand and I said, "As a property owner of one of those parcels, it's deeded. There's buildings built on top of a lot of these fill areas. It's not humanly possible without you getting private property owners' agreement to do that." I said, "You have to back up and say, what can we do? What is reality? If you can't remove it, that's not going to happen, then how can we improve it?"

Karen Rodriguez from Chicago EPA approached me.  She told me that the problem with many public advisory councils is they lean just strongly one direction, and don't have a balance to them. She encouraged me to become involved in the public advisory council, because the EPA would be more likely to support recommendations from a broader constituency.

From that point on, I [started to] attend the meetings. In 2014, they decided they wanted me to chair the group. So I've been chairing it since then, and I try not to let my feelings override anybody else's feelings. We're really a pretty democratic process.

SW: What do you see on the horizon as the next big challenge for Muskegon Lake?

DK: I think our road map to delisting is pretty well laid out ahead of us. Life after delisting seems to be the next thing we will have to deal with.

Right now our major focus is on climate resiliency. We've experienced the highest of highs, the lowest of lows within about a three-year window, as far as our water levels go. That coastal resiliency is something real that we're looking at. We're limited as to what can we do, but that's one of the big things we're digging into right now. For example, how do you make plans to keep marinas from being wiped out because water is too high or too low, or wetlands from being dried right up or completely saturated?

That's I guess the end game for us. How do you take these monster strides we've taken in a positive direction, and how do you make continued increments going forward to have it improve and not go backward?
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