After dealing with a history of flooding issues at his property in west Mitchell, Mike Bathke began to investigate potential causes.
He began to examine a nearby patch of soil and Bathke said he noticed frequent truckloads of material being dumped in a drainage pond over the past several years, near his concrete shop along the west side of the State Highway 37 bypass. As the patch of dirt that sits on Chuck Mauszycki’s land grew larger, Bathke said the flooding woes at his business, Big Dog Concrete, worsened.
It led him to collect a sample of the dirt in question and have it tested by soil agronomy professionals, which revealed high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen. Bathke said he was alarmed at the results of the soil sample, considering its close proximity to Lake Mitchell. The high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, paired with a stench that Bathke alleges the dirt emits, convinced him that it’s manure.
“After I could smell something coming from that direction and had major flooding issues, curiosity got the best of me and I had a soil sample report done,” Bathke said. “The material that is being hauled in and dumped in the area near my property has actually been coming from a feedlot.”
But Mauszycki, a prominent real estate developer, rejected Bathke’s claims alleging the soil in question is manure. Rather, Mauszycki said it’s dirt that is hauled in to level off the field, which is used for growing crops. The city has an ordinance in place that prohibits any property owner within city limits from spreading manure on their soil, which Mauszycki said he's aware of.
“I took the city out to the dirt, and that is exactly what it is; a pile of black dirt,” Mauszycki said.
Bathke brought the results from the soil sample in front of the Mitchell City Council during the Jan. 4 meeting for the first time, urging city officials to respond. Bathke’s soil sample was conducted by Next Level Ag in Alpena, which showed “abnormally” high levels of phosphorus, nitrogen and potassium. The phosphorus levels in the soil hovered around 350 parts per million (ppm), much higher than the optimum range between 30 to 50 ppm.
“I’m not an expert in soil health, but the feedback that I got from the report and from several other people who have more expertise in soil health, was that these levels are dangerously above normal. This is a major problem, especially since this land is close to the lake,” Bathke said, estimating he's seen about 150 truckloads of dirt move into the field over the past couple years.
High phosphorus levels in soil can threaten nearby bodies of water when runoff occurs and may lead to potentially harmful algae blooms in the water. Part of the city’s goal with the wetland project along Firesteel Creek, which flows into Lake Mitchell, is to significantly reduce and filter out the phosphorus and sediment flowing into the lake that’s believed to cause some of the algae woes.
With the nearest lake shoreline being located roughly 2 miles away from the soil on Mauszycki’s land, Bathke said he’s concerned that the phosphorus in the soil is running off into the lake, contributing to the algae blooms.
“This is a problem. This land eventually drains into Lake MItchell, and this could be detrimental to the lake clean up efforts that the city has been working hard to achieve,” Bathke said during the Jan. 4 council meeting. “Given the city just spent $4.1 million to acquire property to help control the runoff going into Lake Mitchell, this would hurt all of that work. We should not be allowing this to happen when farmers near Firesteel Creek are being asked to reduce runoff.”
While the soil sample showed high levels of phosphorus and nitrogen, Mauszycki said there isn’t a stench or manure-like aroma coming from the soil. Mauszycki said the farmer who unloads the soil on his property reiterated to him that it’s merely dirt.
“It doesn’t stink. When I took the city out there, there was no smell. There has never been a manure smell, either,” Mauszycki said.
City samples soil
Since Bathke voiced his concerns and presented his soil sample test results to the council, Public Works Director Kyle Croce has been investigating the situation. With Mauszycki’s permission, the city of Mitchell recently hired another group of soil experts to conduct a sample of the soil. However, Croce said the city’s soil sample included testing a variation of depths, along with testing four different sections of the soil. According to Bathke, his soil sample was taken from one spot on the surface of Mauszycki’s dirt pile.
Despite the difference in soil samples, Croce said the city’s results showed high phosphorus levels, ranging from 173 to 330 ppm. In addition, Croce said the nitrogen levels ranged from 88 to 230 ppm, which he noted are also considered to be high.
“The levels were high, but those numbers don’t give us a determination that it is manure,” Croce said. “What we’re looking at is whether the elements of phosphorus and nitrogen have the ability to transfer into the storm water systems. What we’re asking from the property owner and the engineers is to let us know if they are in compliance with their drainage permit.”
Following the sampling process, the city provided Mauszycki with a 14-day period to make sure the soil and activities are in compliance with his drainage permit, which is regulated by the state’s Department of Environmental Natural Resources (DENR). Croce said the city asked Mauszycki to provide that confirmation of compliance within 14 days.
If the soil activities are not in compliance with Mauszycki’s drainage permit, Croce said the city would require Mauszycki to develop a plan to meet the DENR's compliance standards. Croce said potential solutions could include planting grasses on the soil, seeding or placing turbidity barriers along the area, which would be provided by a licensed professional engineer.
Mauszycki is currently working with local engineers, SPN and Associates, to examine the soil and review his drainage permit in coordination with the DENR. As he awaits feedback from the DENR, Mauszycki said he will make any necessary adjustments to the soil to if need be.
“I'm not trying to harm any soil or land, and I would do whatever needs to be done, if there is really any issues," Mauszycki said.
In regards to Bathke's concerns of the phosphorus potentially making its way into the lake, Croce noted it's unlikely the soil could travel the roughly 2 miles it would need to reach the lake. However, Croce said a severe rain event could cause some concerns for the lake.
“I don’t see this as an immediate problem for the lake, but it could be a problem over time and in the midst of severe storm events,” Croce said.
Council Vice President Dan Allen, a longtime agriculture businessman and soil health expert, said phosphorus in soil moves roughly 2 inches per year.
Regardless, Allen said the concerns of the phosphorus and nitrogen levels found in the soil is something that the city should be diligently investigating, considering the city’s ongoing efforts to improve Lake Mitchell's water quality.
“With how much work we’re doing to get the lake improved, it’s great that the city did its own investigation into the soil,” Allen said. “Doing the sample the right way by testing different depths and different sections of the soil is important, because we can’t rely on just one small area that's done with a scoop shovel. You have to sample with a stainless steel probe to get more accurate numbers.”