Despite a day-long search, scuba divers from the city’s police and fire departments were unable to locate the source of a thin slick of oil that spread yesterday over the western half of Micshcoon Lake, the disused reservoir on the northern edge of the city. While divers plunged into Mischcoon’s cold, gray, frigid waters, pitching forward off of mossy concrete embankments, silvery police boats skimmed across the far-out middle of the lake, slowing as they neared buoys flying red-and-white diving flags.
Police Chief Anna-bel Guzman, who was directing the search efforts from aboard the M/V Larchmont, speculated that the leak may be under the northern half of the lake, outside of city limits and therefore outside of her department’s jurisdiction. “If it’s under [the northern half], we can’t touch it,” Guzman said, sounding both frustrated and amused as she lowered her binoculars. “Our divers are tryingâ€”they’re seeing oil bubblesâ€”but the bubbles are pretty spread out and our first priority is to figure out which side of the line the leak is on.” The search for the leak was the first deployment of the Larchmont; the boat was purchased last year with a Department of Homeland Security maritime safety grant.
Dr. Stewart Latimar, a professor in geology and geophysics at Wharton College, speculated that the leak might be coming from underground tanks built to hold lubricating oil, a vestige of Fishy Fun Times, an ill-fated pay-by-the-catch fishing amusement park. “Those tanks, they’ve got a fifty, maybe sixty, year life-span,” said Latimar. “Once they start to rust, the oil seeps into the earth and can travel horizontally through the water table. It is very, very difficult to pin-point leaks of this nature.”
The lake is named for Czechoslovakian railroad and shipping titan R. Mischcoon PaÅ¡ka, who funded the construction of a canal connecting the lake to points east. (The lake was originally known as Lake PaÅ¡ka, but in 1890 it was summarily renamed by State Commissioner of Public Lands Clement Gottwald, who held that “nobody knew how to pronounce that damn squiggly thing over the ‘s’,” and that “our typing pool is sick and tired of adding it to every document they type about the lake.” Contemporary historians see ethnic overtones in this move; Gottwald was ethnically Czech and “Mischcoon” is a Czech name, while “PaÅ¡ka” is more common among ethnic Slovaks.)
Mischcoon Lake has, at various points in its existence, been the summer training grounds of the Municipal Swimmers’ Life-Saving Brigade (1893-1934), a private fishing reserve and weekend destination for the city’s elite (1934-41), the centerpiece of Fishy Fun Times (1941-2), and a drinking-water reservoir (1942-55). The lake’s use as reservoir was discontinued when construction was completed on the larger Donaldson Reservoir in 1956. In 1973, plans to use the lake as a cooling sink for the Belledon Nuclear Power Plant were shelved after federal authorities, heeding local protests, chose to locate the power plant in unincorporated Clark County, 130 miles to the north-northwest.
In 1981, the northern wards of the municipality of Belledon voted against annexation by the city, while Belledon’s two southern wards supported annexation by more than 90%. The two pro-annexation wards, on the south shore of the lake, were incorporated into the city, and city limits extended to the middle of Mischcoon Lake, splitting the lake between two jurisdictions. Belledon has contracts with the county for sheriff, fire, and rescue services. As of press time, neither the county sheriff’s office nor the state Office of Environmental Protection had returned calls seeking comment.
“We just hope we find [the leak] soon,” said Guzman, as the Larchmont gently rocked from side to side, its blue lights flashing. “And that it’s under our half of the lake, so we can fix it.”
– Sean Fraga