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.
They lived with the chemical company for decades.
Velsicol Chemical operated on the banks of the Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan until 1978. The company made a lot of things over the years – including tons of the pesticide DDT and the flame retardant chemical PBB.
A 10-year-old in 1938 felt the pollution was criminal
People who grew up around the plant tell stories about Velsicol Chemical dumping white liquids directly into the river, and about the river having a milky white look to it.
Phil Ramsey said he knew the river was polluted ever since he was a kid. He’d walk across a bridge over the Pine River to get to his 3rd grade class.
“Every day when I walked to school there were dead birds, dead fish, dead turtles,” said Ramsey. “And there used to be an old police officer, and I thought if I told the cop, he’d do something about the pollution. It didn’t happen.”
Fast-forward more than 70 years – and Ramsey says he’s still waiting for the pollution to get cleaned up.
“I’ve been wanting this plant site cleaned up all my life,” Ramsey said. “Maybe if I live to 130 or 140 I’ll see it happen, but I don’t know.”
Ramsey is one of those residents who is upset that the state and the EPA entered into an agreement with Velsicol back in 1982. He said a lot of people knew that plan to contain the pollution wouldn’t work. And he felt like the government and the court didn’t listen to the community back then.
The first plan to contain the pollution didn’t work
There was a consent agreement between the state, the EPA, and Velsicol Chemical back in 1982.
The government agreed that it wouldn’t sue in the future if Velsicol spent the money to contain the pollution on the sprawling 54-acre site.
Velsicol just basically buried its old plant right there on the banks of the Pine River. The buildings and the storage tanks were demolished and covered over with a clay cap. And it built a clay wall along the river – hoping to keep the contaminants out.
Scott Cornelius was the project manager for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality when they discovered that Velsicol’s burial pit was leaking.
He said Velsicol’s containment system was poorly made. The clay cap on top was thin in some places, thicker in others, and it allowed rainwater in. And their containment system didn’t have a bottom to it.
“There wasn’t like a layer down below the bottom that stopped anything from going out in the groundwater, or even out into the river.”
The chemicals buried on the site were leaching into the groundwater and eating through the clay wall along the river and seeping out.
By the time it was discovered the plant site was leaking – the company that bought Velsicol, Fruit of the Loom, went bankrupt. That was in 1999.
Today, the taxpayers are paying for the cleanup
The toxic footprint Velsicol Chemical left on this city is big.
The Pine River
In the middle of the Pine River in St. Louis, workers are pulling out the remnants of an old steel wall. It was used to dam up and drain parts of the river.
From 1999 to 2006 – construction crews dug out the river sediment that had some of the highest levels of DDT ever recorded. The project cost close to $100 million.
Early signs show that it worked. DDT levels have gone down dramatically in fish.
The yards near the old plant
And crews are in the process of excavating polluted yards in a nine-block area around the old plant site. Spring robins are dying from DDT poisoning in some of those yards. That project, in the end, will cost around $12 million and they hope to be done next year.
The Burn Pit
Velsicol used an old dump site to burn and dispose of old industrial waste from 1956 to 1970. The site is located across the river near a golf course in St. Louis. The EPA says the company disposed of around 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of hazardous waste there. It was first proposed as a Superfund site in 1982, but Velsicol dug up and removed a lot of contaminated soil, so it was removed from consideration.
More than 20 years later it was discovered that Velsicol didn’t get everything. The EPA is now developing a plan to get rid of the pollution here.
Soil in the floodplain down river from the old chemical plant shows signs of needing cleanup as well. Tests are being done there to discover what needs to be addressed. And soil on the high school’s athletic field was found to be contaminated by old river sediment left over from a flood, so that area will need to be addressed as well.
But the biggest challenge is the old plant site itself
Tom Alcamo is the EPA project manager for the Velsicol Superfund site.
“It’s going to be a very big challenge just treating all the different types of chemicals on this site,” said Alcamo. “There are hundreds of different chemicals that are all… a number of them are very toxic.”
A lot of the people in St. Louis want the EPA to just dig up the old plant and haul away all the contamination.
Alcamo says they do plan to dig up some of the pollution on the site, but in other parts, the chemicals are either too deep or too toxic.
So the EPA plans to insert hot metal rods into the ground to treat the pollution in place, and it will pump polluted groundwater to the surface.
“Underneath the site, we will never be able to clean the groundwater up to levels that are safe, but we will contain that groundwater, and no one will be drinking that groundwater,” he said.
The city is in the process of getting a new water supply from nearby Alma. They’ll shut down their city wells so they don’t draw groundwater away from the plant site. Instead, groundwater will be pumped up from underneath the old plant site itself.
They will pump up the groundwater, treat it, and keep it from spreading further out into the soil.
“We treat it, and we will probably discharge it into the Pine River through a permit that the state will give us,” said Alcamo.
It’s going to be expensive. And it will take decades. And Alcamo and his team have to ask for money from the EPA’s Superfund program each year.
All told, the current estimate to execute and build this new treatment plan is around $150 million. If the EPA gets the money to do the project, the state will eventually have to take it over. Alcamo puts the estimate of running the treatment system on the site over the lifetime of the project at $200 million.
Toxic town label
Before the chemical plant set up on the banks of the Pine River, St. Louis was known for its mineral springs. People would come to town to experience the springs’ “curative qualities.”
That’s long in the past now.
Marcus Cheatham is a health officer with the mid-Michigan Health Department. He says the pollution has hurt St. Louis.
"You lose your big employer, and you can’t attract small employers because you’re 'toxic town' and you can’t sell your house because nobody wants to live in toxic town, so you have this generation of people who’ve really been betrayed by the government and the community that votes for our leaders," said Cheatham. "We really have let this community down, and it’s really tragic."
Jim Kelly is the 73-year-old mayor of St. Louis. He’s lived here his entire life except when he was in the Army. He says this community has lived with this pollution long enough. They’re pushing the state and the EPA to do a good job with the cleanup this time around.
“We would like to be known as the people that changed things - that because of us, the EPA, and the MDEQ that in 2014, 2015, 2016 they made a difference and have a clean environment in our community.”
The director of the MDEQ, Dan Wyant, says it was clear that in the past mistakes were made.
"I just feel confident that we're doing the right thing now and this site is well on its way to being cleaned up," said Wyant.
Tomorrow, we’ll hear more about the chemical company behind all this pollution – and how taxpayers have come to pay for the cleanup. You can see more from our series here.