CLYDE TOWNSHIP, Mich. - When empty-nesters Kari and Ron Craton moved a few years ago to a more rural area of southwestern Michigan, they were seeking a more rustic life.
What they got was more rust.
Government officials say food-processing plants that turn raw crops into products have contaminated the water-supply wells of the Cratons and other property owners in agricultural areas of Michigan and could do the same in other states. Residents claim increased amounts of metals in water drawn from their wells have killed their pets, ruined their plumbing and made their houses impossible to sell or rent.
"It's going to take years to clean up this mess," says Kari Craton, who persuaded environmental advocate Erin Brockovich to help her and her neighbors.
A few years ago, acting on residents' complaints about foul odors and flies near wineries and cheese factories in the San Joaquin Valley, regional water officials in California started requiring food processors to install monitoring wells near the fields where they disposed of their production wastewater. Elevated levels of salts and nitrates, which in extreme cases can reduce blood oxygen in infants, were found near some fields.
In Michigan, lawn sprinkling has left an iron oxide patina on the front of the Cratons' ranch, the side of their garage and the decorative cement blocks used in landscaping their front yard. The couple have had bath water that was brown and foul-smelling, fingernails that turned orange and boiled eggs that cooked up black.
Elevated levels of iron, arsenic, manganese and other potentially toxic substances have been detected in the groundwater of two southwestern Michigan communities that are home to large food-processing operations, according to documents obtained by The Associated Press under the Freedom of Information Act.
The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says the wells of dozens of homeowners near a Birds Eye Foods Inc. cannery in Fennville and a Coca-Cola Co. fruit juice plant in Paw Paw have been contaminated by the facilities.
The Birds Eye plant produces fruit fillings, sauces and glazes made from cherries, blueberries and apples. Coca-Cola makes Minute Maid fruit juice and juice-based drinks in Paw Paw, which is about 30 miles south of Fennville.
State environmental officials say affected residents face no serious health dangers, but little is known about the potential risks of long-term exposure to combinations of such elements. People worry about what they see as unexplained illnesses and even deaths among relatives and neighbors.
"No one's ever actually done a cumulative impact or cumulative effect analysis (to determine) if somebody's receiving water that's high in arsenic and high in manganese, does the manganese compound the problem of the arsenic?" asks Bob Bowcock, a water expert who works with Brockovich.
In the 1960s, both operations started disposing of their production wastewater by spraying it onto local fields, just as other food companies did for years. It was believed that the salt, sugar and other organic matter in the wastewater would restore nutrients to the soil, while the impurities would be filtered out as the wastewater percolated down through the dirt and into aquifers.
However, scientists determined in the last decade that too much spraying can contaminate groundwater.
Coca-Cola stopped spraying fields in 2001, after opening a $7 million wastewater-treatment facility. The company issued a written statement saying it is continuing to study groundwater issues with the Department of Environmental Quality.
Birds Eye stills sprays, although it has proposed making a $3.5 million upgrade to its wastewater-treatment system to handle water used in processing.
The company has denied being the source of Fennville's groundwater contamination, noting that its spray fields are near a former Chevron Chemical Co. waste-burial dump and orchards that long used pesticides containing arsenic. The Cratons live in Clyde Township, about a mile east of the Birds Eye plant.
Birds Eye said in a written statement that it "shares residents' concerns about water quality" and also has been working with the Department of Environmental Quality.
Untreated wastewater from food processing has high concentrations of organic matter that robs the soil of oxygen, causing naturally occurring metals that had been attached to soil particles to be released into groundwater, says agency hydrogeologist Eric Chatterson.
"We're now going through the process of trying to get everybody to upgrade or come up with an alternative way of discharging so that we don't have these problems," Chatterson says.
Manufacturing, tourism and agriculture are Michigan's three largest industries. Firms that freeze, can and dry foods are mostly in northern, western and southwestern Michigan.
Since July 2007, Birds Eye has provided the Cratons with monthly deliveries of bottled water and dug them two new wells, the first of which contained water with too much iron, according to a December report from the company to the Department of Environmental Quality.
There is talk of expanding the city of Fennville's water-distribution system to homes with contaminated water outside the city limits.
Several Fennville-area residents filed a federal lawsuit against Birds Eye in January. That case is working its way through the system. In April, at the request of Kari Craton, Brockovich met with residents at a town hall-style meeting where the environmental advocate said she would take on their case.
Brockovich's legal team is planning to sue both Birds Eye and Coca-Cola on behalf of affected property owners.