Tanya Cabala, Community Environmental Activist
It was 1989 when I learned that where I lived, in the White Lake area, Muskegon County, Michigan, had some fairly serious historical pollution problems. The pollution wasn’t new, but it was news to me and I was sad to see White Lake and our charming scenic area through a different lens.
At the time, I had concerns about a proposed landfill expansion. That was my first foray into the world of environmental activism and through it I met a wide variety of community-minded people and began to learn more, in particular, what had happened as part of our chemical manufacturing era. I was a young mother with two young toddlers. On their behalf and out of love for my community, I decided to get involved. I wanted to show my son and daughter that I didn’t ignore our problems and that I would do what I could to find solutions.
At the time, I never would have imagined that the next 25 plus years would be very different than the life I had imagined as an elementary teacher. Instead I would be passionately involved in a long-term and wide-ranging community effort to clean up my community’s historical pollution and it would lead to a new lifelong career and broader involvement in the environmental arena. My interest and volunteer work led to a position with the Lake Michigan Federation (now the Alliance for the Great Lakes), and subsequently my own business, as a consultant and freelance writer, working for Great Lakes, state, and local environmental and community organizations.
I am pleased to share the story and lessons of how citizens helped to restore the health of their lake, earning back its title, “White Lake the Beautiful.”
The White Lake area, in Western Michigan along the shoreline, was a sleepy, but scenic resort area when it innocently embraced the chemical manufacturing era in the 1950s. The people who lived there appreciated the well-paying jobs and newfound prosperity, but ended up paying a steep price when pollution from some of the companies damaged White Lake and put it in the national spotlight as a poster child for pollution, just 20 years later, in the late 1970s.
Fortunately in the 1970s, citizen activists raised awareness about the pollution issues, rallied the community and got cleanups underway. But problems remained. In 1985, White Lake was designated an Area of Concern, a “toxic hotspot,” by, both State and Federal agencies as well as the International Joint Commission, because of the extent of the pollution. It was one of 43 in the Great Lakes (see more on page 2). A Remedial Action Plan (a cleanup plan) was done in 1987, but unfortunately just sat on a shelf gathering dust.
Thankfully, citizens stepped up again and made sure the cleanup happened. They organized residents and established the White Lake Public Advisory Council (PAC) in 1992 to work with local, state, and federal partners to finish restori
ng White Lake to health. It was not always “smooth sailing.” One low point for me was around 1995, after several years of initial work by the PAC. We were energized and prepared to continue our commitment, but state and
federal support languished. The message we heard from government officials at the time was “you’re on your own.”
With determination, the PAC continued to monitor polluted sites and hold public meetings to spur action and effective cleanups. The group engaged citizens and was the “squeaky wheel” to ensure continued progress. Freshwater Future helped the PAC in 1997 with a grant for strategic planning and implementation of a habitat restoration project. Essential local partners included the Muskegon Conservation District and GVSU Annis Water Resources Institute.
The first year the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative had available funds, 2010, toxic
hotspots were a priority and White Lake was ready and first in line to apply, obtaining over $2 million to address lakewide habitat restoration. This project would boost the Area of Concern significantly to delisting.
After nearly two decades since its designation, on October 30, 2014, White Lake was officially
delisted as an Area of Concern by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the PAC held a huge celebration. Everyone involved—residents, politicians, government officials, activists, and young people—gathered at a local coffee house to recognize the hard work and effort of many to clean up White Lake. We ate, laughed and celebrated, but the next day, got back to work and began identifying the next steps to continue additional improvements, maintain citizen stewardship, and keep White Lake healthy.
Tanya Cabala is a lifelong resident of the White Lake area, in Muskegon County, Michigan, and has been an environmental and community activist for over 25 years, working to restore White Lake and aiding efforts to protect the Great Lakes. She is also an elected city council member, freelance writer, and consultant. Back