In 1968, or just before, the air began to stink on Kalamazoo’s east side.
The smell was so bad that people could hardly bear it, said Jim VanderRoest, who lived on Arthur Avenue near East Main Street and was about 12 at the time. “It was just a putrid odor, and it permeated the whole neighborhood,” he said.
Under orders from the state, Kalamazoo and its paper mills and factories were trying to do a good thing: clean up the Kalamazoo River, which, after decades of serving as the community's default cesspool, had more paper pulp than fish in it. Unfortunately, along the way, the city created a disaster for the east side.
“I think it was the cutting edge, you might call it the bleeding edge of environmental engineering. I think it was well intentioned but it just wrecked the neighborhood, it really did,” Jim said.
The problem? The new sewage lagoons, or “sludge pits,” on a sprawling property near East Michigan Avenue and Nazareth Road. Young Jim checked them out once.
“The stuff that I saw was kind of slimy gray semi-liquid, kind of halfway between a liquid and a solid,” he recalled.
The city hoped the new pits would allow waste from the Harrison Street sewage plant to break down. Instead, it just sat there and stank, making life miserable on the east side.
"Why's That?" finds out why the pits failed, not just socially, but as a method for treating sewage. We also find out what happened to the site. Jim is wondering if there are still plans to turn it into a park.
The sewage problem
The city built its first household sewers in the 1880s. Bruce Merchant, a longtime Kalamazoo Public Services director who retired in 2013, says the sewage had one destination: “It went right in the river.”
Kalamazoo’s paper mills dumped pulp in the river and its streams, and factories contributed their own waste. Jim says the water stank. It was a strange color for a river. Kids held their breath when they crossed.
“People don’t remember, it was horrible. [The river] wouldn’t sustain life of any kind,” he said, adding that Portage Creek “looked like a manila folder.”
Kalamazoo began to treat domestic waste in the 1950s. But the river was still ailing. Most aquatic animals need oxygen to survive, just like the ones on land. But the waste that was still going in the water gobbled that oxygen up, James Baker, the current city public services director explained.
Finally, in the 1960s, the state told the paper mills to stop dumping in the river. The city thought the sludge pits would let them treat the extra volume. But standing outside the Nazareth Road gate to the old lagoon site, Merchant tells Jim that the sludge “just was not treated well when they pumped it up here.”
“The challenge that they really had was the unique blend of industrial waste streams,” Baker explained. Besides pulp, the pits held pharmaceutical and automotive manufacturing waste. Those chemicals ended up preserving the sewage.
“Really that sludge is made up of a lot of microorganisms, and the cell wall of those microorganisms was not breaking down,” Baker said.
While we have the benefit of hindsight, Baker said the city engineers couldn’t just look up a better method.
“There was no book on waste stream as complicated as what had here,” he said.
But while the engineers looked for a solution, people on the east side were suffering. They were also furious. They had suspected that open sewage pits would stink; they protested the lagoon plan before the city ever put a shovel in the ground. It didn’t help that while the sludge pits were technically in the city, virtually everyone who had to smell them lived in Kalamazoo Township.
Eastside residents filed a lawsuit. They took to the streets. Thousands of people marched to city hall in 1968 - Jim VanderRoest among them.
“I was a little fat kid that walked several miles downtown to city hall,” he said.
The city put giant vinyl covers on the pits, trying to contain the smelly gas. But Jim said that wasn’t the end of the odors. (This approach lead to headlines such as “Gas Bubble Escapes At Sludge Pits,” from the Kalamazoo Gazette, July 22, 1968.)
Finally, in the early 1970s, the city engineers did find a way to break down Kalamazoo’s unique sewage. The new method did not involve lagoons. But the closure of the pits came too late for Jim VanderRoest’s family. He says they moved to get away from the smell.
“At one point there was talk of turning this into a recreational area,” Jim said, but he’s wondering if it’s “too contaminated” for that.
Baker said the site is not known to be seriously polluted. But Merchant said there’s “just too much to deal with” at the 200-plus-acre property.
“The police used it as a shooting range, for a while down in the low area and there were some issues as a result of that,” he said.
Add the pits and a history of trash dumping and the site’s not ready for the public. Also, the city uses the land for things that take up space – like leaf composting and wood chipping. If a water main breaks on your street and the city has to dig up the pavement, the rubble might get buried as “clean fill” on this land.
As Jim and I left the lagoon site, he said it was easy to remember the hard feelings about the sludge pits.
“But like [Merchant] said, people did their best and it’s unfortunate that their best wasn’t enough.”