St. Louis

The site of the former Velsicol Chemical Corporation in St. Louis is going to take a long time to clean up.
Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

The city of St. Louis, Michigan would much rather be talked about as the geographic center of the Lower Peninsula.

Instead, there's a lot of focus on the legacy of pollution here.

The story of Velsicol Chemical in St. Louis, Michigan is quite complicated. 

This week, we’ve told you about efforts to clean up the old Velsicol Chemical plant. There’s a threat to the local drinking water supply after the first attempt to clean up the plant failed. Birds still die from DDT, decades after the plant stopped producing it.

But we haven't told you who's paying to fix it.


Velsicol Chemical operated on the banks of the Pine River in St. Louis, Michigan from 1938 to 1978. It was the site of the infamous PBB mixup. The entire plant was buried in place and now it's leaking.
Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force

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.

Mark Brush

 

About 10 years ago, a weird chemical started showing up in the drinking water in St. Louis, Michigan.

It was a byproduct of DDT. The insecticide is now banned in the U.S., but DDT was manufactured in St. Louis for 20 years.

Now, the city is working to get a new source of drinking water. 

the nyerges family
Courtesy of Jane-Ann Nyerges

It's been over 40 years since the Michigan Chemical Corporation/Velsicol made a catastrophic mistake that affected millions of Michigan residents.

The company from St. Louis, Michigan, shipped a toxic flame retardant chemical to the Farm Bureau Service instead of a nutritional supplement. That chemical was PBB or polybrominated biphenyl.

PBB was mixed into livestock feed, but it took a year to discover the accident. Millions of consumers ate contaminated milk, meat, and eggs during this time.

Jane-Ann Nyerges was one of the farming families whose lives were changed after the PBB contamination.

An ailing robin fledging in Teri Kniffen's yard in St. Louis, Michigan in June of 2013.  Some of the highest levels of DDT ever recorded in bird livers and brains were found in this neighborhood.
Teri Kniffen

All this week we're bringing you stories about the chemical company responsible for the PBB tragedy in Michigan. Michigan Chemical accidentally contaminated the state’s food supply in the 1970s, but the legacy of that company is still very much with us today.

Michigan Chemical – which later became Velsicol Chemical – made more than just PBB, and it left these toxic chemicals behind in St. Louis, Michigan.

One woman insists something is wrong with the birds

Photo courtesy of Emory University

More than 40 years ago, Michigan’s food supply was contaminated. People’s health is being affected, even now.

All this week, we’re looking at the ripple effects left behind by the company that made that tragic mistake.

In 1973, the Michigan Chemical Corporation shipped a toxic flame retardant chemical to a livestock feed plant instead of a nutritional supplement. The chemical is called polybrominated biphenyl, or PBB. It took about a year to discover the accident. 

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

More than 40 years ago, people in Michigan were poisoned. Researchers are still following those people today.

In 1973, a fire-retardant chemical called PBB, polybrominated biphenyl, accidentally got mixed into livestock feed.  It took a year to discover the accident. 

Studies estimate 70-90% of people in Michigan had some exposure to PBB from eating contaminated milk, meat and eggs. The MDCH says the "overwhelming majority of those who were exposed to PBB received very low levels."

Other people had higher levels of exposure.

Researchers at Emory University in Atlanta are studying the long-term health effects of exposure to PBB. The team was in Michigan this past weekend to continue the study. 

Mark Brush / Michigan Radio

Forty years ago a chemical mix-up led to one of Michigan’s worst environmental tragedies, and it’s not over yet.

The mix-up occurred in early 1973 at the former Michigan Chemical Corporation plant (which later became the Velsicol Chemical Corporation) in St. Louis, Mich. The company accidentally shipped flame-retardant chemicals to livestock farms around the state.

Farmers thought they were getting a feed supplement. Instead, they were dosing their animals with the toxic chemical PBB.

The problem wasn’t discovered for another year -- and the chemicals were passed up the food chain to humans.

The Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) released a draft assessment today of an area in Gratiot County once used to burn waste. The contaminated area is near St. Loius, Michigan.

From the MDCH:

Of the results from the Public Health Assessment, soil from the former burn area and from a nearby neighborhood did not have levels of chemicals over health-based screening levels. There are ash piles in the former burn area that do have levels of arsenic and lead over health-based screening levels. However, people are not expected to be harmed by those chemicals, as people will have little to no contact with the ash piles.

Further, shallow groundwater under the former burn area had higher levels of chemicals than groundwater from deeper underground. This could potentially mean that chemicals in the soil or ash piles at the former burn area could be moving into the groundwater. People have little, if any, contact with the shallow groundwater under the former burn area, and nearby private drinking water wells did not have chemical levels above health-based screening levels.

The MDCH officials are inviting comments from the public on their health assessment. Comments are being accepted through May 7.

The Environmental Protection Agency has been developing a cleanup plan for the site and the Velsicol chemical plant site.

Google Maps

Land and groundwater in the city of St. Louis, Michigan has been contaminated with chemicals from the Velsicol Chemical Company.

Now the city will get $26.5 million to help set up a new water supply  system.

According to the EPA, Velsicol (formerly known as the Michigan Chemical Corporation) "produced various chemical compounds and products at its fifty-four acre main plant site in St. Louis, Michigan, such as hexabromobenzene (HBB), 1,1,1-trichloro-2,2-bis(p-chlorophenyl) ethane (DDT), polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), and tris(2,3-dibromopropyl) phosphate (tris)."

The EPA says the company produced these chemicals from 1936 until 1978.

From the Associated Press:

ST. LOUIS, Mich. — A federal judge has approved a $26.5 million settlement for a central Michigan community whose water supply was contaminated by a chemical company in the 1950s and 1960s.

U.S. District Court Judge Thomas L. Ludington in Bay City signed an order approving the deal on Thursday.

The city of St. Louis, Mich., hopes the settlement with Rosemont, Ill.-based Velsicol Chemical Co. will help pay to replace the water system that serves the area, which is contaminated with a byproduct of the pesticide DDT.

The settlement of the 2007 lawsuit was approved this week by the City Council.

The city says money for the settlement includes $20.5 million from an insurance company for Velsicol and $6 million from a trust related to a former parent company.

The EPA lists the threats and contaminants in the community:

On-site groundwater is contaminated with DDT, chlorobenzene, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene (TCE), and other chlorinated compounds. On site soil samples revealed contamination with PBBs, copper, chromium, zinc, and magnesium. The sediments of the Pine River were also contaminated with similar contaminants through direct discharges from the site; however, surface waters do not show any significant impacts. Potential risks exist for people who eat contaminated fish and wildlife in the vicinity of the site.