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Tuesday, February 15, 2005 - By Jeff Alexander, CHRONICLE STAFF WRITER

People who live near Ryerson and Little Black creeks, or spend time wading or fishing in the polluted waterways, will soon know whether toxic mud in those streams endangers public health.

Officials from the Michigan Department of Community Health are investigating whether area residents are coming in contact with toxic mud on the bottom of those Muskegon-area creeks often enough to pose health problems.

"We'll take a look at how the contaminants could be getting to people and how people could be getting into the contaminants," said Brendan Boyle, a specialist with the Michigan Department of Community Health.

State officials met with 30 area residents, scientists and government officials Monday at Grand Valley State University's Lake Michigan Center in Muskegon to learn about the extent of contamination in the creeks. The state is performing the study, known as a "health consultation," for the federal Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Government toxicologists will spend the next several weeks reviewing existing studies and data on pollution in the creeks. From those studies, state officials will make a determination about whether the pollutants endanger public health and what steps should be taken, if any, to keep people away from the contaminants.

Ryerson Creek flows into the east end of Muskegon Lake, passing by the Farmers Market and Green Acres Park. Little Black Creek empties into Mona Lake after passing through Johnny O. Harris Park and Mona Lake Park. Both creeks are popular summer gathering spots for family picnics; children from area schools also have waded in the creeks in the past as part of class projects.

Recent studies of mud on the bottom of the creeks have documented potentially harmful concentrations of chemicals known to cause cancer, brain damage and neurological disorders, including arsenic, lead, PCBs, mercury and benzo (a) pyrene. The sources of those contaminants have not been identified.

The burning question is whether people are coming in contact with the polluted creeks often enough to endanger their health.

Researchers will also explore the possibility that other sources of environmental contamination -- such as elevated lead levels in older homes and mercury in fish caught in nearby Muskegon and Mona lakes -- could add up to dangerous chemical exposures. Exposure to toxic chemicals from more than one source can have an additive effect, increasing the risk of health problems, according to Rick Rediske, a professor of water resources at GVSU.

The concentrations of arsenic and mercury found in Ryerson Creek sediments are higher than those found in Ruddiman Creek, a severely polluted waterway that flows into the south side of Muskegon Lake. A multimillion-dollar sediment cleanup of toxic mud in Ruddiman Creek is scheduled to begin this summer.

Cadmium concentrations are 20 times higher in Little Black Creek than Ruddiman Creek; arsenic levels in Little Black's sediments are six times higher than in Ruddiman Creek, Rediske said.

James Austin, former president of the environmental group Save Our Shoreline, said the state's health study has little value unless it leads to a cleanup of the polluted creeks.

"Finding out a place is poison doesn't help unless we find some way to deal with it," Austin said.

A study similar to the one planned for Ryerson and Little Black creeks accelerated plans to dredge contaminated sediments from Ruddiman Creek, local officials said.

"Where communities are involved is where you see the cleanups take place," said Jamie Morton of the Lake Michigan Federation, a regional environmental group.