Plastics pollution? Course urged golfers to hit balls into Lake Michigan – Detroit Free Press

Plastics pollution? Course urged golfers to hit balls into Lake Michigan  Detroit Free Press

A diver and photographer commissioned by the Free Press found hundreds of balls in Lake Michigan off Arcadia Bluffs’ 12th hole.


A diver and photographer commissioned by the Free Press found hundreds of balls in Lake Michigan off Arcadia Bluffs’ 12th hole.

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Search for golf balls in Lake Michigan beyond Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club

We commissioned a diver to search for golf balls in Lake Michigan beyond Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club.

Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

“Go ahead and do it, everyone does,” the prestigious Arcadia Bluffs golf course urged on its website as recently as last Tuesday, in its description of the 12th hole on its Bluffs Course, on a cliff overlooking Lake Michigan.

“Once you’ve launched a ball into Lake Michigan, on purpose, turn your attention to the native bunker on the right side of the fairway as it is your aiming point on the tee shot.”

Golfers have heeded that urging, in unknown numbers, round by round, every day of golf season, since Arcadia Bluffs opened in Manistee County 20 years ago. The result: untold thousands of golf balls into Lake Michigan — a “shocking,” “frivolous” and “ridiculous” contribution to the rising plastics pollution problem in the Great Lakes and worldwide waterways, environmental advocates said.

Traverse City diver/photographer Chris Roxburgh was commissioned by the Free Press to dive Lake Michigan in the area beyond Arcadia Bluffs’ 12th tee. Within about an hour, he found at least 200 golf balls, from about 5 feet deep in water to more than 20 feet deep, 400 or more yards away from the bluff.

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Some of the balls were partially or fully buried on the lake bottom; some had become trapped in driftwood or rocks; some rolled around freely with the waves and currents. The balls showed varying stages of age — many looking pristine and just hit into the lake, others covered in algae.

On an earlier scouting trip on a calmer day, Roxburgh said that from his boat, he saw a golf ball in Lake Michigan more than a half-mile from Arcadia Bluffs’ 12th hole.

“I’m pretty disappointed that someone would be promoting polluting the Great Lakes, putting plastic in the Great Lakes in these days and times,” Roxburgh said. “Especially publicly promoting it on their website.”

Not anymore. The reference to intentionally hitting golf balls into Lake Michigan was removed from the Arcadia Bluffs 12th hole web page after Free Press inquiries.

Aerial photo of Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club 12th hole green and fairway near Arcadia Township, Friday, July 13, 2019.
Mandi Wright and Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

“The description of the 12th hole has been updated, eliminating the reference to hitting balls into the water.  Thank you for drawing our attention to this outdated reference,” Arcadia Bluffs president William Shriver said in an email to the Free Press.

“We certainly do not want to encourage the practice of hitting golf balls into Lake Michigan.”

Arcadia Bluffs is one of Michigan’s — and the nation’s — premier golf courses. Golf Digest in May ranked it 13th among America’s 100 Greatest Public Courses, alongside such iconic, U.S. Open-hosting courses as Pebble Beach in California, Pinehurst No. 2 in North Carolina and Bethpage Black in New York.

A summer round at Arcadia Bluffs costs golfers $215 — or $35 just to ride the course in a cart and not play.

The state regulatory agency charged with preventing pollution into the Great Lakes did not sound particularly concerned.

“This is not something we would really spend much time on, simply from the level of effort that would go into overseeing this,” said Teresa Seidel, the water resources division director for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

“Not that we are condoning anybody putting anything into waterways. But from a resource perspective, we can’t follow up on something like this. … Because of our limited resources, we have to prioritize issues of greater environmental concern.”

Seidel later told the Free Press that EGLE’s Law Enforcement Division is “looking into the issue.”

Sara Padden worked at Arcadia Bluffs as a beverage cart employee last season and earlier this spring.  

“When I first started there, we were rotational, so I didn’t see Hole 12 as often as I might have,” she said. “At the end of the shift, we would go wait on Hole 12 — the beverage cart can’t service holes 8 through 11 because of the terrain, so we would wait at Hole 12 for the golfers.

“That’s when I noticed” that hitting golf balls intentionally into Lake Michigan “was very prevalent.”

This spring, Padden was stationed at the 12th hole.

William Shriver, president, Arcadia Bluffs golf course
The description of the 12th hole has been updated eliminating the reference to hitting balls into the water. Thank you for drawing our attention to this outdated reference. We certainly do not want to encourage the practice of hitting golf balls into Lake Michigan.

“Almost every group is driving golf balls into the water,” she said. “A lot of guys will bring old balls that they don’t play, specifically for that purpose, just whacking them into Lake Michigan.”

Padden didn’t think much about the practice at first, she said. But as she saw how frequently it occurred, “I started thinking about it: ‘Wait a minute; that’s a lot of golf balls. What’s happening with all of these golf balls?’ “

After doing some Internet research and learning about golf balls and plastics pollution in water, Padden became more outspoken. She said she raised the issue at a staff meeting with Shriver in May.

“He said, ‘We will talk about that later,’ ” she recalled.

Seeing no action, Padden said she later brought up the topic again to her beverage manager, Cameron Cosby, and then later to Arcadia Bluffs Vice President of Operations Zach Chapin.

Sara Padden, a former employee at Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club, says she was fired after informing golfers that hitting balls into Lake Michigan was bad for the environment.
Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

“I’m not the kind of person that’s just going to be quiet when I see people doing something that I know is going to cause a lot of harm,” she said.

The Free Press sought confirmation of Padden’s account from Arcadia Bluffs management, but Shriver responded in his emailed statement, “As you may understand, we do not publicly discuss employee matters.”

Padden then took matters into her own hands. On her shift Thursday, May 30, Padden said she began to “very politely” give golfers information as they prepared to hit balls into Lake Michigan on the 12th tee.

“(I would say), ‘Just so you gentlemen are aware, when golf balls decay, they release high levels of zinc and heavy metals into the water,’ ” she said.

“Some players thanked me,” she said. “One guy said, ‘Yeah guys — that’s my salmon swimming out there.'”

Others were less moved. Padden said she heard one golfer say, “Yeah, I don’t give a (expletive) about the environment.”

Padden had the next day off. On Saturday, at the end of her shift, Arcadia Bluffs fired her, she said. Managers told her it was “for harassing the players and slowing the pace of play,” she said.

Padden said that in a later phone call with Shriver, she mentioned encouraging multiple groups of golfers not to hit balls into the lake that workday before her firing. She said Shriver replied, “Oh, so you said this to more than one group?”

“That makes me believe it was only one person who complained,” she said.

Padden has since found other employment, and said she has no interest in filing wrongful termination litigation against Arcadia Bluffs.

“They’re still not doing anything about the golf balls,” she said. “They’re not doing anything.

“I got a lot of brush-offs and excuses from management. They’re just not concerned at all.”

In Arcadia Bluffs’ emailed statement to the Free Press in response to a request for an interview, Shriver portrayed golfers intentionally hitting balls into Lake Michigan as something the course discourages — its earlier invitation on its website to do so notwithstanding.

“Thank you for contacting us regarding this issue, one that has plagued lake and oceanside golf courses around the world for decades,” he stated. 

“In the past, a sign posted at the 12th tee discouraged guests from this practice, however we discovered this sign actually had the opposite effect as players actually hit more balls into the lake. The vast majority of our guests do not hit golf balls into Lake Michigan. By not drawing attention to the issue, we believe that the incidents of hitting balls into the lake have decreased. We take our environmental responsibilities seriously.”

Shriver added that the course has previously had divers retrieve golf balls from Lake Michigan, though he didn’t say when or how often, and that they “routinely canvas” the beach below the hole and remove litter, including golf balls.

Golf balls are an unusual type of Great Lakes water pollution, but they are pollution nonetheless, said Nicholas Schroeck, an environmental law expert and associate professor at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law.

“Golf balls are made out of plastic and rubber,” he said. “You are basically putting plastic waste into a Great Lake. That’s illegal. You’re not supposed to do that.”

Specifically, Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act, Public Act 451 of 1994, Section 8902, states: “A person shall not knowingly … dump, deposit, place, throw, or leave, or cause or permit the dumping, depositing, placing, throwing, or leaving of litter on public or private property or water other than property designated and set aside for such purposes.” The definition in the law of “litter” includes “rubbish, refuse, waste material, garbage, offal, paper, glass, cans, bottles, trash, debris, or other foreign substances.”

Golfers stand near the 12th hole tee box of Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club in Arcadia Township, Thursday, July 11, 2019.
Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

The fine for the civil infraction is not more than $800 if the litter is less than 1 cubic foot in volume, and up to $2,500 for 3 cubic feet or more of litter.

The individual golfers who intentionally hit a ball into Lake Michigan are in violation of the statute — but because the golf course was encouraging the activity, and it was occurring from its property, Arcadia Bluffs may be legally culpable as well, according to Schroeck.

“In my mind, the golf course is liable,” he said.

The fine amount may be rather paltry for a course charging golfers $215 per round — “unless the course could be cited for each golf ball as a separate incident at 800 bucks a ball,” Schroeck said.  

“I doubt that would happen, but perhaps a prosecutor could make that argument persuasively,” he said.

Schroeck unwittingly predicted state regulators’ tepid interest in the issue.

“I would think EGLE would certainly want to stop this from happening,” he said. “I can imagine an initial kind of eye-roll: ‘Is this really something we’re going to have to enforce?’ But I think it is.”

The Free Press forwarded a portion of Roxburgh’s underwater video off Arcadia Bluffs’ 12th hole to Seidel at EGLE. Seidel responded by email Wednesday, “I have forwarded on to our environmental conservation officers for follow up when in the area.”

On Thursday, Seidel sent another email to the Free Press. “The EGLE Law Enforcement staff are looking into the issue,” she said.

There’s been very little scientific research on the environmental impact of golf balls. But common sense is all it takes to understand their impact can’t be good. Golf balls are covered in plastic, with rubber and resin cores that often contain petroleum byproducts, zinc and heavy metals. They may take decades to naturally decompose, but decompose they will, eventually.

Bigger pieces of plastic break down into smaller pieces, and eventually into tiny microplastics — which have become a big problem in oceans and lakes worldwide, including the Great Lakes.

A study released last month by the University of Newcastle in Australia found that an average person could be ingesting approximately 5 grams of plastic every week via microplastics pollution in their food and drink — the equivalent of eating a credit card weekly.

Mike Shriberg, executive director, National Wildlife Federation Great Lakes Regional Center
If you asked them to take a plastic bottle when they’re on a boat, and to just toss it into the Great Lakes, they would say, ‘Oh no; I don’t pollute. ‘I don’t understand why they would do the equivalent on a golf course and not think twice about it.

Researchers at the Rochester Institute of Technology found that nearly 22 million pounds of plastics debris enters the Great Lakes each year from the U.S. and Canada.

The Free Press showed a segment of Roxburgh’s dive video off the Arcadia Bluffs 12th hole to representatives of the environmental nonprofit National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center.

“It’s shocking,” said Mike Shriberg, the center’s executive director.

Shriberg said it made him think of “the bad old days,” when too many used the Great Lakes as a dumping ground. In its own way, this is worse, he said.

“It’s dumping without a purpose — there’s no benefit to it,” he said. “This isn’t an industry that’s trying to save money. It’s kind of hedonism.

Diver Chris Roxburgh of Traverse City picks up some golf balls from Lake Michigan where ball have been teed from Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club’s 12th tee box near Arcadia Township, Thursday, July 11, 2019.
Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

“I was surprised and, frankly, appalled, at both the golf course for encouraging this, and the golfers for not thinking twice before putting pollution directly into the Great Lakes.”

The concern in particular is when the golf balls, however far into the future, start to decompose, said Michael Murray, a staff scientist for the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Regional Center. The balls will begin to lose polymers and heavy metals from their cores, potentially exposing fish and other aquatic life to them. 

“Then there’s the smaller pieces of plastic you would have once the balls are breaking down,” he said. “It’s similar to the overall microplastics problem we’re seeing in the Great Lakes and, really, in waters all around the world.

“There’s going to be concern with any kind of pollution — particularly in a case like this, where it’s pretty frivolous.”

There’s an odd disconnect when it comes to the apparently many golfers intentionally hitting balls into Lake Michigan off Arcadia Bluffs’ 12th tee, Shriberg said. 

“If you asked them to take a plastic bottle when they’re on a boat, and to just toss it into the Great Lakes, they would say, ‘Oh, no, I don’t pollute,'” he said. “I don’t understand why they would do the equivalent on a golf course and not think twice about it.”

There are a few other courses throughout the region where a Great Lake is only a driver, iron or chip away. It’s unclear whether those other courses also have a problem with golfers intentionally hitting balls into the lake.

But golf ball pollution in waterways is certainly a known problem in some areas. On a 2009 expedition in search of Scotland’s Loch Ness Monster, U.S. researchers using a remote underwater vehicle instead encountered something else in the depths: thousands of golf balls

In 2016, 16-year-old diver Alex Weber was diving with her father in the Pacific Ocean off the legendary Pebble Beach golf course in Monterey County, California, when she found golf balls carpeting the ocean floor. She took an interest, and began collecting the balls.

From May 2016 to June 2018, during more than 75 collection expeditions near the Monterey Peninsula off Pebble Beach, nearby Cypress Point Club, and the mouth of the Carmel River, about a 7-mile stretch of coast, Weber recovered nearly 40,000 golf balls.

“This is an aspect of the marine debris problem that no one knows about, and people should know about it,” said Matthew Savoca, a postdoctoral research fellow at Stanford University’s Hopkins Marine Station, who wrote a research paper on the golf ball findings with Weber and her father, Michael Weber.

“Golf balls beak down, they fragment really easily, and turn into these small pieces of plastic animals could eat. They then break down even further, until they become microplastics, more impossibly intertwined into the food web.”

What can be done? Savoca knows golf courses like Pebble Beach — site of last month’s U.S. Open — won’t be moving its course away from the ocean, or putting up netting. What is possible, he said, is that courses raise awareness of the negative consequences of hitting golf balls into an ocean, lake or other water body, and that they make an effort to remove golf ball waste.

“If you’re going to continue to emit into the ocean, you need to organize cleanups to mitigate the pollution your patrons are causing,” he said.

This isn’t Arcadia Bluffs’ first environmental controversy. That occurred before the course even opened.

Creating the course against the Lake Michigan shoreline between Manistee and Frankfort meant clear-cutting about 80 acres of trees. That contributed to the destabilization of the dune bluffs against Lake Michigan, and proved disastrous in September 1998, when, as the course was still under construction, heavy rains created a massive erosion event, with thousands of tons of sediment from the bluff pouring out into Lake Michigan.

Then-Michigan Attorney General Jennifer Granholm sued Arcadia Bluffs’ developer, Richard Postma, and his RVP Development Corp., seeking $425,000 in civil penalties.

Postma was quoted in a Grand Rapids Press article in 1999 regarding the lawsuit, “I’ll let a circuit judge tell DEQ where they can shove it,” referring to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the former name of the state regulatory agency now known as EGLE.

The lawsuit was ultimately settled in August 2003, with the developer agreeing to pay a $125,000 fine to the DEQ, reported at the time as the largest-ever penalty paid to the state for water pollution caused by soil erosion.

A golfer hits a ball toward Lake Michigan on the Arcadia Bluffs Golf Club in Arcadia Township, Wednesday, July 10, 2019.
Junfu Han, Detroit Free Press

On Arcadia Bluffs’ website, the course lists its mission statement. No. 5 of the six items listed there states: “Arcadia Bluffs will maintain the highest environmental respect for the entire property and will demand the same respect from the Club’s guests.”

The course hasn’t lived up to that credo, Padden said.

“It’s not OK that you are continuing to allow gross environmental harm when you know it’s happening,” she said. “They ensured the community they were going to be environmentally friendly. In some cases, they have been. But I don’t think that excuses culpability when they know they have a problem and they’re not doing anything about it.”

Contact Keith Matheny: 313-222-5021 or Follow on Twitter @keithmatheny.