Questions linger after company spreads toxic chemicals on northern Michigan roads
Earlier this summer, a Kalkaska company spread industrial waste on roads in Benzie County. The toxic contaminants were mixed with brine from oil wells - it's used to keep down dust on gravel roads.
The pollutants tested way above what’s allowed for human contact.
The incident is leading some residents to think the Department of Environmental Quality is treating the oil and gas industry with kid gloves.
A gardener investigates
If Bryan Black hadn’t been out tending his garden one morning in early June, it’s likely nobody would even know about the toxic chemicals spread on nearby roads.
Black saw a tanker truck go by and then pull off the highway and onto a dirt road just down from where he lives.
When he later saw the truck go by again, he hopped in his pickup and followed it.
Black had worked in refineries in Houston and Galveston. So he knew the stuff soaking into Douglas Road wasn’t just salty water or brine. He says the odor burned his nose.
“It smells like a combination of insecticide, gasoline, diesel oil and sulfur,” he says.
Black says after he and his wife checked another nearby road they both had dull headaches for the rest of the evening.
They reported the incident to the Benzie County Road Commission which just happened to have a sample from the contaminated load. It contained several chemicals, far exceeding levels for direct human contact, including benzene, a known carcinogen.
Chris Grobbel is an independent environmental investigator who used to track hazardous spills for the state.
"Anybody coming into contact with it with bare feet, with their hands, breathing, inhaling dust, riding bicycles, children playing in these areas, all would be of great concern," says Grobbel.
Nobody is saying there was direct human contact in this instance.
The DEQ responds
The DEQ sent out people to take a look a few days later. But a rainstorm had washed away any visible sign of oil and the odor was gone.
Rick Henderson, field supervisor for the DEQ’s oil and gas section, says the brine came from a storage tank in northern Manistee County. Apparently, contaminants somehow got into one of the brine tanks.
Henderson paints the incident as a slip-up.
"For the most part, I think we do a good job at regulating this practice and especially since everything is tested ahead of time. This is a pretty isolated incident," he says.
The tanks are owned by Team Services, which is supposed to test brine from each well before spreading it on roads.
The DEQ cited the company and told it to explain what happened and how it would fix the problems.
Team Services did not respond to requests to comment for this story.
'Asleep at the wheel'
No matter what happened, Chris Grobbel thinks the truck drivers ought to have been able to tell by the smell that something wasn’t right.
As a former regulator, he doesn’t see it as a fluke. He says the DEQ relies too much on the industry to monitor itself.
He thinks these incidents will continue to happen despite much-touted regulations.
"Ironically, we’ve got regulations that allow for this kind of thing to occur and unfortunately, in my assessment, the state is often asleep at the wheel," he says.
For residents, questions remain
Bryan Black trucks his produce to nearby farmers' markets several times a week.
He recognizes that by speaking out about toxic chemicals spread on roads near his place he may be undercutting his own business.
“Well, I think it’s more important for us to get the word out and get resolution to this so this doesn’t happen again,” he says.
He and his wife want to know if the toxic stuff will end up in their drinking water and they want the company that spread the brine to pay for testing their well.