The visions of fantastic luxury homes, breathtaking golfing vistas and a chance to make money came true for some original Bay Harbor investors.
But the resort jewel on the shores of Little Traverse Bay has proven to be a money pit for Consumer Energy’s affiliated CMS Land Co., which is responsible for environmental cleanup at Bay Harbor.
Much to its credit, CMS has shown no sign of shirking its responsibility.
CMS land has spent eight years and more than $160 million taking responsibility for an environmental mess not of its own making.
And it’s not done spending — oh, no. CMS Land Co. vice president Mike Sniegowski, who heads the division’s Little Traverse Bay Environmental Project said parent company CMS Energy has taken a $250 million charge to pay for the project past and future. That money did not come from rate payers in the company’s electrical and gas energy markets, but from stock dividends and profits, Sniegowski said.
Eighteen years ago this month, with much fanfare and state dignitaries including Gov. John Engler as witnesses, the old Portland Cement/Penn-Dixie smokestacks were dynamited to signal the start of construction on the 1,200-acre luxury resort community.
As part of construction, CMS, Bay Harbor developer (David Johnson and Victor International), the Michigan Department of Natural Resources Environmental Quality and Michigan attorney general Frank Kelley entered into a redevelopment compact. That compact laid out the development partnership’s responsibilities to clean up known existing industrial contamination including capturing the caustic pH, mercury-laden leachate and sending it via sewer line to Petoskey’s wastewater treatment plant. Leachate is formed when rainwater and runoff water comes in contact with the dust.
Portions of Bay Harbor and neighboring East Park were developed over deposits of cement kiln dust, a waste product from the decades and decades when a cement plant operated along the shore. That development plan, approved by Michigan environmental regulators, spelled out the means for moving and capping with soil and fill, large amounts of cement kiln dust containing contaminates into four large piles: Upon one would be built Resort Township’s East Park; the other three became parts of breathtaking (27 holes in all) golf courses.
Without CMS there would be no Bay Harbor as we know it today. Before it met up with Victor International, CMS had loaned money to another hopeful site developer, who dubbed his proposed project Three Fires Pointe. CMS, said Sniegowski, saw an opportunity to gain thousands of new electrical customers in the then-proposed, 4,500-unit project.
Three Fires Pointe flamed out, and CMS seized the collateral — the 300-acre plot which was home to the heart of the abandoned cement operation. With the land on its hands, CMS regrouped, and found David Johnson and Victor International. Bay Harbor Co. was formed.
That was 1994.
In 2002 CMS Land Co. sold out its interests in Bay Harbor Co. but retained legal liability for environmental responsibilities.
In August of 2004, public health officials found shoreline waters with elevated pH, enough to warn the public against bare contact with the water there. Eventually these caustic alkaline levels were found in locations near each of the four state-permitted capped kiln dust piles.
The collection system had failed. And a long, expensive road for CMS began.
While there is no end in sight for CMS, the company and regulators have struck upon an a successful environmental remediation.
It’s good news for Northern Michigan, Little Traverse Bay and the environment and Bay Harbor and — we hope — for CMS in the long run.
Critics who say Bay Harbor developers could have or should have stopped contamination from leaching into Little Traverse Bay ignore the fact that neither company created the mess — leaching of water containing caustic pH levels and heavy metals such as mercury was already occurring long before either entered the picture. It was seeping freely and untreated into our watershed with no one responsible to stop it.