Environmental Friendliness …

November 1, 2004
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Calvin College is justified in tooting its horn about the completion and opening of the Bunker Interpretive Center at its Ecosystem Preserve. The center is a microcosm where students can see how LEED principles in construction and operation jointly defend the environment.

The Bunker Center, however, certainly is not the first or only West Michigan example of environmental friendliness. In fact, it’s one of the smallest and most recent. By far and away the earliest and largest — a mammoth West Michigan environmental hug which grew out of the first wave of American ecological concerns in the late ‘60s — is now in its thirtieth year of operation.

We refer to the Muskegon County Wastewater Management System, the world’s first metropolitan-scale example of returning not treated, but cleansed water to Mother Nature. The system, a federal demonstration program launched by the Nixon Administration, occupies the rural heart of the county and is ringed with test wells. Researchers and civil engineers from all over the world have come to see it.

Yet Muskegon — which through its Smart Zone hopes to become an international alternative power source development center — seems basically unaware that it once helped set the environmental pace for wastewater reclamation. Perhaps that’s because Muskegon County’s historic animus against business fudged early attempts to involve the private sector in the project, a mistake it certainly isn’t making regarding power research.

At any rate, the wastewater system is a giant public works project that daily accepts 42 million gallons of domestic and commercial wastewater. During the growing season it uses thousands of acres of industrial crops to cleanse that water.

Its operating premise is that sewage is a resource in the wrong place; that rather than chemically treat wastewater, it’s cheaper and more environmentally sound to use plants to extract polluting nutrients from it. Pennsylvania State University had tested the notion for years.

The Wacker Drive consultants who developed the system described it as being like Henry Ford’s notion of mating the wheel, the chassis and internal combustion engine to create the automobile. They worked with the county to create an 11,000-acre “living filter,” by mating aeration lagoons, circular spray-irrigation rigs, Muskegon’s sandy glacial soil and the industrial corn growing in it. 

The roots and soil clean the water which percolates through the subsurface aquifer as it makes its way to Lake Michigan.

The minute the system began operation, Scott Paper Mill ceased a generation-long practice of pouring 12 million gallons of clay-laden water into Muskegon Lake each day. Having access to the wastewater system saved the mill and 700 jobs. And what was an opaque and slightly milky lake in 1974 has become clear and blue (though the invasive zebra mussel deserves some of the credit).

In yet another synergy, by taking an 11,000-acre bite out of the heart of the county, the system discourages urban sprawl to the east.

Perhaps one day Muskegon County will come to and toot its horn about the world standing of its Kyoto-class wastewater reclamation system. For now though, it apparently will remain a curiosity to civil engineers, migratory fowl, and the local bird-watchers and amateur astronomers who visit the sprawling site.    

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