The town of St. Louis, Michigan got some good news from the Environmental Protection Agency this week. Agency officials announced at a meeting with concerned citizens that the Velsicol Chemical Superfund site will get $9.7 million to start a massive cleanup project this fall.
The small city in mid-Michigan has one of the most polluted pieces of land in the country. The Velsicol Chemical Company (known as Michigan Chemical up until 1976) produced all kinds of toxic chemicals at its factory right on the banks of the Pine River.
It operated from the 1930s up until the late 1970s, and it was responsible for the notorious PBB incident that contaminated people throughout the state.
In 1982, the old Velsicol chemical plant was simply knocked over and buried with a concrete cap. All those chemicals were simply left buried in the ground.
The chemicals began leaching into the Pine River and into the city’s water supply (the city had to shut off its wells and find another water source a couple of years ago).
The company responsible for the pollution reorganized under Chapter 11 bankruptcy, so now taxpayers will fund a cleanup under the EPA Superfund program.
Jane Keon chairs the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force. The group has been pushing for this cleanup money for a long time.
“One of our deceased members always said, ‘You know if we can just get them to put the shovels in the ground, we’ll go forward from there,’” says Keon. “And it feels like we’re finally going to get those shovels in the ground.”
Keon is hopeful more money will flow from the EPA in future years. The total cost of the cleanup on the site is expected to cost more than $300 million. That includes a “pump and treat” system that will have to run continually to pull chemicals out of the groundwater for years to come.
Once the EPA starts funding a cleanup project, the agency tends to keep providing annual installments for the cleanup to continue.
But that could change in future years. The Trump administration has called for a 30% cut to the Superfund Program. That's despite the fact that EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has said he want to make cleanups like the one in St. Louis a top priority under his watch.
Margaret Guerriero is the acting director of the Superfund division for the EPA. She was in St. Louis this week, and delivered the news that cleanup at the Velsicol Superfund site would get underway to the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force
“I think our budget situation is a little bit more tenuous now, so we’re actually very fortunate to have gotten money … in this particular year,” says Guerriero.
EPA officials say they’ll start cleaning the site this fall. Money for future cleanup efforts on the site will have to be approved year by year.