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What's the fate of one of the largest pollution cleanup projects in Michigan?

Jan 26, 2017

 

There are a lot of former industrial sites in Michigan that need to be cleaned up. The pollution left behind in one town in the middle of Michigan is particularly bad. The Velsicol Chemical Company (known as Michigan Chemical up until 1976) produced a lot of toxic chemicals in St. Louis, Michigan.

 

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.

 

 

The amount of pollution left behind in this town is pretty staggering. The old Velsicol chemical plant was simply knocked over and buried in 1982 with a concrete cap. So all those chemicals are still left in the ground.

 

(To see a timeline of how the company left behind its toxic footprint, go here.)

 

Velsicol Chemical on the banks of the Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan. The chemical plant closed in 1978. The plant was later buried - on site - buildings, contamination and all - after an agreement with the EPA and the State of Michigan.
Credit Pine River Superfund Citizen's Task Force

The town had to shut off their wells and switch to a new water supply. And just a couple years ago birds were dropping dead in people’s yards. So they had dig up the soil to try to get rid of the DDT and other chemicals that were left behind.

 

People who live in St Louis have been pushing for these sites to get cleaned up.

 

Phil Ramsey grew up in St Louis and saw the pollution firsthand as a kid. Later in life, he had several family members come down with thyroid cancer. He’s convinced it’s connected to the pollution, so he’s wanted to see the industrial site cleaned up for a long time.

When I talked to him two years ago, he said the political climate wasn't right for cleanups like this.

 

"I'm in my 80's and I don't know if I'll live long enough to see them cleaning up that plant site."

“With the political climate nowadays," said Ramsey. "They don’t like spending any money and that really bothers me because I’m in my 80's and I don’t know if I’ll live long enough to see them cleaning up that plant site,” he said.

With the new Trump administration, the political climate for cleanups like this might remain the same, get worse, or improve. It's early, so people are trying to read the tea leaves to determine what might happen in the coming months.   

In the meantime, the EPA has been doing a lot of preliminary work getting ready to clean up that site but they still don’t have the money to get it started.

Why it's complicated

The chemical company made everything from DDT to flame retardant chemicals. There are hundreds of kinds of chemicals buried underground there.

Tom Alcamo oversees the cleanup for the EPA.

The fence around the old Velsicol Chemical Plant site in St. Louis, Michigan.
Credit Lindsey Smith / Michigan Radio

“Probably the worst chemical on the site is something called 1,2-dibromo 3-chloro propane. It’s a banned pesticide that’s a male sterility agent in low doses. So a lot of the drilling and things that we have to use on the site we have to use full respiratory protection,” he says.

They’re really concerned about keeping people off of that property now - they have it all fenced off now with warning signs.

A big price tag

The full cleanup of the plant site is expected to run into the hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re asking for $15 million to get the process started.

But it all comes down to money. These are Superfund sites. Superfund is a pot of money first set up in 1980 to clean up these toxic sites.

But Superfund has been depleted over the past 15 years.

Originally, that fund was created by taxing the traditional polluting industries - like chemical and petroleum producers - but back in the mid-1990s during the "Contract with America" days, Congress let that tax expire.

 

It’s never been renewed, so you and I - the taxpayers - pay for these cleanups now.

 

Nick Schroek directs an environmental law clinic at Wayne State University. He says that’s meant the money available to clean up these sites has dropped:

 

Credit Kaye LaFond / Michigan Radio

“That means less remediation work can be done. There's less money available to pay contractors to do the work. And so you'll see a lot of these sites just listed for you know many many years and we're not having that type of aggressive clean up that we would like to see certainly from an environmental and public health perspective," says Schroeck.

 

And Schroeck says the longer these sites sit, the more expensive it gets to clean them up.

 

There are more than 1,100 of these Superfund sites across the country. 65 of them are here in Michigan.

 

Every year, the EPA looks at all these Superfund sites and decides which ones get money.

Since the funds are limited, they base it on what they call “worst first.”

 

Last year, the project in St. Louis did not get funded. But the EPA's Tom Alcamo said he’s hopeful they’ll get money this year. He expects to hear more this March.

 

The Mayor of St. Louis, Jim Kelly, says it's not fair to ask this small town to bear the costs of all this contamination. 

"We think that it's necessary for the people of this nation to do a cleanup because we didn't create this problem. We're just saddled with the byproduct, and it's just not right for us to have to pay [for] all of the cleanup by ourselves," says Kelly.

 

A lot of money has been spend so far to get rid of the contamination found in the Pine River and in different parts of the city.

Now the focus is on trying to cleanup the old plant site, and the so called "burn pit" on the other side of the Pine River (that's where the company burned and disposed of a lot of waste - see graphic above). 

 

With current Superfund funding levels, and the slow pace of cleanup of these old toxic sites, it could be a long time before the people in St. Louis can reclaim those parts of the city.  

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