pollution

The site of the former Velsicol Chemical Corporation in St. Louis is going to take a long time to clean up.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The city of St. Louis, Michigan would much rather be talked about as the geographic center of the Lower Peninsula.

Instead, there's a lot of focus on the legacy of pollution here.

The story of Velsicol Chemical in St. Louis, Michigan is quite complicated. 

This week, we’ve told you about efforts to clean up the old Velsicol Chemical plant. There’s a threat to the local drinking water supply after the first attempt to clean up the plant failed. Birds still die from DDT, decades after the plant stopped producing it.

But we haven't told you who's paying to fix it.


Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Gov. Rick Snyder is expected to sign legislation that changes pollution clean-up procedures in Michigan. Senate Bill 891 is backed by the Department of Environmental Quality and the Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The DEQ argues too much money is being wasted by the costs of cleaning up inconsequential amounts of pollution. The agency says it should assess risks to human health and use more cost-effective methods when determining pollution clean-up requirements. Leaving some contaminants behind in an area not used by people would allow the agency to deal with more of the clean-ups that do threaten public health, the agency believes.

Velsicol Chemical operated on the banks of the Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan from 1938 to 1978. It was the site of the infamous PBB mixup. The entire plant was buried in place and now it's leaking.
Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

There are a lot of former industrial sites in Michigan that need to be cleaned up, but the Velsicol Superfund sites in St. Louis, Michigan are unusual in their size and in the amount of nasty chemicals lurking in the ground where people live, work and play.

The company tried to contain the pollution before, but its solution didn’t work. Ask some of the community members about that original plan and they say they could have told you it wasn’t going to work.

An ailing robin fledging in Teri Kniffen's yard in St. Louis, Michigan in June of 2013.  Some of the highest levels of DDT ever recorded in bird livers and brains were found in this neighborhood.
Teri Kniffen

All this week we're bringing you stories about the chemical company responsible for the PBB tragedy in Michigan. Michigan Chemical accidentally contaminated the state’s food supply in the 1970s, but the legacy of that company is still very much with us today.

Michigan Chemical – which later became Velsicol Chemical – made more than just PBB, and it left these toxic chemicals behind in St. Louis, Michigan.

One woman insists something is wrong with the birds

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

More than 40 years ago, people in Michigan were poisoned. Researchers are still following those people today.

In 1973, a fire-retardant chemical called PBB, polybrominated biphenyl, accidentally got mixed into livestock feed.  It took a year to discover the accident. 

Studies estimate 70-90% of people in Michigan had some exposure to PBB from eating contaminated milk, meat and eggs. The MDCH says the "overwhelming majority of those who were exposed to PBB received very low levels."

Other people had higher levels of exposure.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta are studying the long-term health effects of exposure to PBB. The team was in Michigan this past weekend to continue the study. 

EPA

The Environmental Protection Agency announced today two toxic hot spots in Michigan have been cleaned up.

Work is now complete at White Lake in Muskegon County and Deer Lake in the Upper Peninsula.

The sites are on a list of about 40 toxic hot spots surrounding the Great Lakes; 14 sites are in Michigan.

Quincy Mine near Hancock, Michigan back in the day
Don...The UpNorth Memories Guy... Harrison / Flickr

Copper.

Its use in our lives is astounding, and so is the cost of mining it. When Bill Carter moved to Bisbee, Arizona, he found himself directly affected by the mining history in the town.

And so he wrote “Boom, Bust, Boom: A Story About Copper, The Metal That Runs The World.” The book comes from his firsthand experience with the effects of living in a copper-mining town.

Carter calls copper the invisible metal. We hear a lot about gold, aluminum, and iron. But the 400 pounds of copper in our homes, 9,000 pounds in airplanes, and 50 pounds in our cars, is overlooked as it “runs modern civilization.”

“The programs we offer are the ones that (veterans) desire,” says Garland Williams, the University of  Phoenix’s vice president for military affairs.
Carlos A. Moreno / CIR

Update 10:30 p.m.

The showed has already aired on Michigan Radio. If you missed it, you can catch it again here.

Original post- 11:30 a.m.

Who’s really benefiting from the GI Bill? Why does the U.S. Coast Guard have some explaining to do? How much arsenic in our water is actually safe? There’s always more to the story.

“Reveal,” the radio show dedicated to investigative reporting, is back. Brought to you by The Center for Investigative Reporting and PRX, the third pilot episode examines the value of a degree from a for-profit colleges reaping millions of dollars from GI Bill funds, explores the Coast Guard’s shaky safety record, exposes the backroom deals over arsenic in our water and delves into the secrecy around lethal injection drugs.

Catch Reveal tonight on Michigan Radio at 7 p.m.!

Here’s a rundown of the stories you’ll hear:

ckay / Creative Commons

A popular program to improve the environment around the Great Lakes could be extended. A task force including 11 federal agencies and led by the Environmental Protection Agency released a draft of the updated plan Friday for public review.

Congress has already approved $1.6 billion on the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative. An updated blueprint calls for another $275 million annually over the next five years. 

A big chunk of that money helped jump start efforts to clean up industrial pollution that happened decades ago. There are 14 of these so-called "toxic hot spots" in Michigan on a list of Areas of Concern. Cleanup efforts have been underway since the 1980s.

“They’ve been on the list for far too long. We need to give these harbor side and riverside communities some relief and get them cleaned up,” Cameron Davis said. He’s a senior advisor to the administrator at the Environmental Protection Agency.

At 3:00 p.m today you can tune into Lester Graham's documentary, "Growing up in poverty and pollution," produced for State of Opportunity. Or, you can listen to the compelling stories these families anytime over at State of Opportunity.

Brianna Allgood gets a checkup on her asthma.
Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Children growing up in poverty face huge challenges. One challenge that might not come to the top of the mind, though, is pollution.

As part of Michigan Radio's State of Opportunity project, reporter Lester Graham spent the past three months exploring the problem.

His documentary, "Growing up in Poverty and Pollution," will air tomorrow at 3 p.m. on Michigan Radio.

Lester joined us today to talk about his project.

*Listen to the audio above.

Sarah Cwiek / Michigan Radio

Studies by environmental scientists find that 48217 is the most polluted zip code in the entire state of Michigan.

It's the zip for the Boynton neighborhood in southwest Detroit, perched next to the Marathon Refinery, which refines tar sands oil that comes from Canada.

The byproduct of that tar sands refining? Those huge piles of pet coke that appeared along the banks of the Detroit River last year before being removed.

For many people who call the Boynton neighborhood home, life is about belching smoke stacks, terrible odors, worries about what chemicals they're being exposed to, and declining property values.

Renee Lewis recently reported on "Life in Michigan's Dirtiest Zip Code" for Al Jazeera America, and she joined us today.

Listen to the full interview above.

Gas prices from the past at the shuttered Logan's Gas and Deli near Battle Creek.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Every time you fill up, you pay seven-eighths of a cent per gallon of gas for a “regulatory fee” that was originally set up to help clean up the thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan.

Those pennies you pay at the pump add up to a $50 million pot of money each year.

It’s called the Refined Petroleum Fund. The fund worked initially. The money helped remove tens of thousands of old underground storage tanks in Michigan. When those old tanks leak, they can pollute the soil and ruin nearby water sources.

micropterus_dolomieu / Wikimedia commons

So you know the saying, right? Stuff flows downhill? Myron Erickson knows a lot about that "stuff."

He heads up the sewage treatment plant that sits along the Grand River in Wyoming, Michigan (right next to Grand Rapids).

The screening room is where they take out the "grit." Erickson calls them "knick knacks."

"It's a small particle like sand, and also all things that come to us in sewage, like peas, and corn, and peanuts," says Erickson.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Forty years ago a chemical mix-up led to one of Michigan’s worst environmental tragedies, and it’s not over yet.

The mix-up occurred in early 1973 at the former Michigan Chemical Corporation plant (which later became the Velsicol Chemical Corporation) in St. Louis, Mich. The company accidentally shipped flame-retardant chemicals to livestock farms around the state.

Farmers thought they were getting a feed supplement. Instead, they were dosing their animals with the toxic chemical PBB.

The problem wasn’t discovered for another year -- and the chemicals were passed up the food chain to humans.

Photo by Shawn Allee

Dioxins are environmental pollutants that are known to be toxic to many animal species, and since dioxins work their way up the food chain, there needs to be a clearer understanding of their effects on humans.

That's why we wanted you to know about a more than $14 million study being launched at Michigan State University. Researchers hope to get a better idea of how dioxins affect human health and they hope to figure out new ways of removing them from the environment.

Norbert Kaminski directs Michigan State University's Center for Integrative Toxicology and he is the lead researcher in this major study. He joined us today from the campus in East Lansing.

Listen to the full interview above.

user: Soil Science / Flickr

You're about to read something you might not want to spend much time thinking about, but that doesn't mean it's not important. 

That subject is septic fields. Of the 1.3 million wastewater treatment systems in Michigan, nearly 10 percent have failed. That's about 130,000 systems. 

With thousands of failing septic systems throughout the state, what's that doing to our water?

Michigan is the only state in the Union that doesn't have uniform standards governing how on-site sewage treatment systems should be designed, built, installed and maintained. 

Jeff Alexander recently examined the state of Michigan's septic fields in an article featured in Bridge Magazine

Michigan Radio's Cynthia Canty spoke with Alexander about what scientists at Michigan State are finding.

For those unsavory details and more, click the audio link above.  

user romanm / wikimedia commons

DETROIT (AP) - Tests by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality have found that hulking black mounds along the banks of the Detroit River in southwest Detroit don't pose a threat to human health.

The petroleum coke, or pet coke, mounds are a byproduct of oil refining used in energy production. The material has been brought by trucks from the nearby Marathon Petroleum Co. refinery, and the mounds drew attention starting earlier this year.

The Detroit News reported the MDEQ's findings Friday.

Area residents, the Canadian government and U.S. lawmakers are among those concerned about potential pollution and health effects.

Findlay, Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum says the pet coke stored along the Detroit River is no longer owned by the company. If stored properly, however, Marathon says pet coke poses no environmental concerns.

Detroit and its downriver suburbs have some serious pollution problems.

And according to a new Sierra Club report, the greatest effects fall on poor, largely non-white communities.

The report deals with environmental justice in southeast Michigan—the idea that poor, minority communities tend to shoulder the burdens of pollution.

It details toxic emissions from six major sources in and around Detroit—five of which are clustered in the downriver area.

In 2007, Logan's Gas and Deli lost 8,000 gallons of gas underground. The owners walked away, and the state is still cleaning up the mess.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

There are around 4,800 gas stations in Michigan, but at one time, there were a lot more. It seemed like just about every corner had a gas station on it.

Many of those gas stations are closed now, but taxpayers are often on the hook for what’s been left behind.

I visited one of these polluted sites recently with representatives from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). The heavy traffic along State Route 89 near Battle Creek makes it a perfect place for a gas station.

And for a long time, things were going well for Logan’s Gas and Deli.

wikimedia commons

MIDLAND, Mich. (AP) - The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says Dow Chemical Co. is ahead of schedule as it samples residential properties in Midland for dioxin.

The DEQ this week approved Dow's request to begin work on 300 properties that had been scheduled for inspection next year.

It's part of a five-year plan to clean up neighborhoods contaminated for decades by airborne dioxin from a Dow plant in Midland, where the company is based.

Of about 150 properties sampled thus far, 22 have had dioxin levels higher than 250 parts per trillion, which triggers a company-funded cleanup if the owners want it.

Results from this fall's sampling will be available next spring. Any needed cleanups will get started then.

Dow is negotiating with federal officials over cleanup of the Tittabawassee and Saginaw rivers.

Kevin Lund, a senior geologist at the MDEQ's Department of Remediation, kicks over gravel to reveal the pollution along the Huron River.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Starting today, DTE plans to bring in the heavy equipment needed for the pollution cleanup along the Huron River west of the Broadway Bridge in Ann Arbor.

Black, oily coal tar pollution has been underground for decades.

It was left behind by an old manufactured gas plant owned by the utility company. Two years ago regulators discovered the coal tar was getting into the river. Now, DTE plans to spend between $2-3 million digging it out.

Kevin Lund of MDEQ shows a sample of oil and water he collected when he dug a hole in the bank of the Huron River. The analysis they did on the samples they collected showed that the contamination was coming from the old MichCon manufactured gas plant.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The city of Ann Arbor recently spent more than one million dollars rebuilding an old mill race along the Huron River. The Argo Cascades is a series of little waterfalls and pools where kayakers and people floating in inner tubes come to cool off.

But downstream from the Cascades on the other side of the river, there’s a problem.

There's been pollution lurking underground for some time from an old industrial plant, and two years ago regulators found that some of the pollution was making its way into the Huron River.

The days before natural gas

Foxriverwatch.com

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (AP) - Cleanup of sediments contaminated with PCBs continues along parts of the Kalamazoo River.

(Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)

Tests suggest household wells near the 2010 Kalamazoo River oil spill have not been contaminated.

A pipeline break in July, 2010, resulted in more than 800 thousand gallons of crude oil leaking into the Kalamazoo River.   The cleanup of the river and the surrounding area continues.

Health officials have spent the past few years testing 150 wells in the spill zone.

joelk75 / Flickr

A new law will soon limit the types of waste that can be thrown into pits and barrels to be burned. Plastics, chemically treated wood, and electronics are among the types of trash that cannot be burned.

The new rules don’t go as far as some people wanted, which was to ban outdoor burning altogether.

There were fights between neighbors about drifting smoke  -- in some cases, causing or aggravating asthma attacks.

But burning waste is so common in parts of rural Michigan that a compromise was struck. Some of the most toxic materials are banned, but grass, leaves and other yard waste can still be burned.

The director of the state Department of Environmental Quality Dan Wyant said he hopes this is the beginning of a culture change in rural Michigan.

“We’ll go out, and we’re trying to educate,” said Wyant. “We’re not trying to be heavy-handed in our enforcement, but we will communicate about the law, and we do want to move away from outdoor burning.”

The new rules become enforceable in six months.

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Tonight at Cobblestone Farm in Ann Arbor, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will hold a public meeting to discuss a plan to clean up toxic pollution along the banks of the Huron River.

The soil near the Huron River just downriver of Argo Dam has been contaminated with substances leftover from an old manufactured gas plant that operated from around the 1900s to the 1940s.

Manufactured gas plants converted coal to gas for street lamps, cooking, and heating prior to the widespread use of natural gas.

But back in those days, converting coal to gas left behind some nasty pollution. And the tarry, oily-like pollution can bubble up decades later - as it has in Ann Arbor.

The site in Ann Arbor is owned by the Michigan Consolidated Gas Company (MichCon), a subsidiary of DTE Energy.

You can get an idea of where the pollution is on the site by clicking through the images above.

In a pollution response plan filed on behalf of MichCon, several pollutants were noted.

  • Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, and xylenes (BTEX) (associated with petroleum releases);
  • Total polynuclear aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) (associated with MGP tar and/or petroleum releases);
  • Metals (arsenic, chromium, copper, lead, mercury, selenium, silver, thallium, and vanadium) (some of these metals (e.g., arsenic) may be from natural background);
  • Ammonia; and
  • Available cyanide.

Here's more on tonight's public meeting from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality:

MichCon property owners are proposing to remove sediment, near shore soil, and some contaminated upland soil from the Huron River and its south bank at the MichCon plant site near Broadway Street. This plan requires a construction permit from DEQ.  

The public meeting and hearing will be held at Cobblestone Farm, located at 2781 Packard Road in Ann Arbor. Doors will open in the big barn on the second floor at 6 p.m. for informal discussion with DEQ staff, followed by a public meeting at 7 p.m., and a formal hearing to gather public comment around 8 p.m.  

As part of the permit review process, the DEQ also is accepting written public comment on the plan through April 30, 2012.

DTE Energy is planning several methods to control the pollution on the site, including removing polluted sediment, and capping and collecting other sources of pollution.

AnnArbor.com's Ryan Stanton reports Ann Arbor city officials are anxious to see it cleaned up:

Ann Arbor officials expect the cleanup to take place starting this summer. DTE has vowed to pay for whitewater improvements along the river as part of the project.

Matt Naud, the city's environmental coordinator, expects the cleanup project will go before the Ann Arbor Planning Commission for site plan approval because it will disturb natural features, but he doesn't expect that to be a significant issue.

"We're just glad this significant level of cleanup is happening," Naud said. "It's a big project. They're going to be moving a lot of soil."

The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) released a draft assessment today of an area in Gratiot County once used to burn waste. The contaminated area is near St. Loius, Michigan.

From the MDCH:

Of the results from the Public Health Assessment, soil from the former burn area and from a nearby neighborhood did not have levels of chemicals over health-based screening levels. There are ash piles in the former burn area that do have levels of arsenic and lead over health-based screening levels. However, people are not expected to be harmed by those chemicals, as people will have little to no contact with the ash piles.

Further, shallow groundwater under the former burn area had higher levels of chemicals than groundwater from deeper underground. This could potentially mean that chemicals in the soil or ash piles at the former burn area could be moving into the groundwater. People have little, if any, contact with the shallow groundwater under the former burn area, and nearby private drinking water wells did not have chemical levels above health-based screening levels.

The MDCH officials are inviting comments from the public on their health assessment. Comments are being accepted through May 7.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been developing a cleanup plan for the site and the Velsicol chemical plant site.

wikimedia commons

LUDINGTON, Mich. (AP) - Federal regulators will let operators of the passenger ferry S.S. Badger apply for a permit to continue dumping coal ash into Lake Michigan.

The Badger typically puts more than 500 tons of waste ash into the lake every year during its crossings between Ludington and Manitowoc, Wis. The Environmental Protection Agency previously set a December deadline for the company to stop the practice.

The Ludington Daily News reports that EPA on Tuesday told Badger operators they could apply to continue the dumping as they study ways to convert the ship to burn natural gas.

Republican Rep. Bill Huizenga tells The Muskegon Chronicle that the Badger is a historic vessel that provides jobs on both sides of the lake.

Democratic Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan also praised the EPA decision.

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