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People in Kalamazoo cautiously optimistic about new option to clean up old landfill site

Feb 27, 2015

About a hundred people fill the gym at St. Joseph Catholic Church to learn more about the new option and give feedback.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

People living near a Superfund site in Kalamazoo seem to like the compromise cleanup plan posed by the city. About a hundred people came to the first public meeting Thursday night to learn more about the plan and to provide feedback.

“I mean it’s pretty apparent to me that the EPA was planning on doing what we call ‘the kitty litter option.’ You know, kick sand on it and walk away,” Gary Wager, executive director of the Kalamazoo River Cleanup Coalition said, “It was going to be just like it is today only with a spiffier fence.”

Wager and many others want the pollution left behind from a paper mill removed. But that option is too expensive. The compromise plan would consolidate and cap the waste instead, but allow for some redevelopment. Under the plan, a fence around the site warning people to stay out would come down.

Given the options the EPA had outlined, Wager says he’s excited about the new possibility.

“This leaves us with access to at least some of the property which pretty much for my lifetime has been a grungy old paper mill or a bombed out forbidden zone. I like that,” Wager said.

So does Tammy Taylor, executive director of the Edison Neighborhood Association. But she’s still got a lot of questions. “Will it be safe to ride your bike around there? Will the waste stay where it’s supposed to? I just, I don’t know,” she said.

Wager says board members with the most scientific backgrounds are the most hesitant to support anything but complete removal. They worry the waste could eventually move from the site.

Because the waste is mixed with clay, the EPA says it’s unlikely to move anywhere on its own.

“It’s like we have a bomb there we’ve got in encased in a so-called bomb-proof room but we still have a bomb there,” Wager said.

Michael Berkoff manages the project for the EPA. He says adding an option to a Superfund’s feasibility study is uncommon but not unheard of. He says the compromise opened because the city offered to take on more responsibility for the site. The state's Department of Environmental Quality played a key role in bringing the two parties together to talk last spring and summer.

“We hadn’t yet had the city approach us and express a willingness and a desire to be an active partner out there long term. With that and the stewardship that they’d provide it changes things,” Berkoff said.

Berkoff says it’ll still take several months before the EPA will finish an evaluation of the new option.