Pine River Task Force gets things done

Editor’s Corner (published Feb. 27, 2014)

Posted on Wednesday, February 26th, 2014 and is filed under Columns. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

by Greg Nelson

Pine River Task Force gets things done

There are some folks who probably view members of the Pine River Superfund Citizen’s Task Force as a group of pushy radicals who have overstepped their bounds by continuing to pester state and federal authorities to do even more regarding the cleanup of various contaminated sites in the area.

Maybe there’s some truth to that, but to me that’s the type of attitude you must have when dealing with government bureaucracy.

The task force was organized more than 15 years ago as the official Citizens Advisory Group to make recommendations and serve as a local “watchdog” regarding the various remediation projects undertaken by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Those include the $100 million cleanup of the Pine River adjacent to the former Velsicol Chemical Co. plant site in St. Louis that was completed in the early 2000s.

The group also “pestered” the MDEQ to check out the slurry wall that’s supposed to keep toxic chemicals on the polluted 54-acre parcel from seeping into the river. If it hadn’t done that, it’s unlikely the investigation that verified the barrier was leaking would have ever taken place.

If it had gone undetected the pollutants would have simply continued to flow back into the waterway compromising the EPA’s Superfund cleanup.

The EPA and MDEQ are now preparing to begin a cleanup project at the plant site that will likely cost millions of dollars and take a number of years to complete.

That probably wouldn’t be happening either without the task force’s persistence and the cooperative relationship it has developed with those agencies.

The group has also become involved in studies upstream where a number of petroleum-based contaminants were allegedly discharged into the river from the former Total and Midwest refineries in Alma, and has done the same downstream where additional remediation could take place.

State and federal environmental authorities probably view the task force like a pesky mosquito buzzing in their ear. No matter how many times they try to swat it away it just keeps coming back to torment them some more.

There were a lot of snickers when members filed a $100 million environmental damage claim in the bankruptcy proceedings against Fruit of the Loom Inc. The company once owned North West Land Management which was responsible for all of Velsicol’s contaminated sites in Gratiot County. The group also wrote letters to urge various governmental agencies to do the same.

They didn’t qualify for any money but their efforts helped the others, which were awarded a total of more than $66 million in the proposed settlement to help pay for the Pine River remediation and future long-term environmental assessments.

If not for the “audacity” of the task force no one else may have even bothered filing a claim at all.

But there’s even more.

Members also got the attention of the Nuclear Regulatory Commission which resulted in the cleanup of a parcel of property in Bethany Township known as the “Breckenridge Site,” where Velsicol buried radio-active material adjacent to Bush Creek.

It’s now completely clean and can be reused.

They also raised concerns about the MDEQ’s cleanup plans for the contaminated Smith Farm property just south of St. Louis in Bethany Township where remediation has also taken place.

Then there’s the cleanup of several contaminated spots in a St. Louis neighborhood next to the plant site where high levels of DDT and PBB were found.

During the past several years the group’s success in working with government agencies has gained nationwide attention from other communities faced with similar pollution problems. Several members have been asked to share their story at conferences across the country.

There are many other accomplishments I could list here but you get the idea.

Now, however, the task force is in the midst of what may become its biggest accomplishment – getting a comprehensive health study done on local residents who have been exposed to PBB and other hazardous chemicals once manufactured at the Velsicol plant.

It’s been one of the group’s major goals since it was formed.

The Rollins School of Public Health at Emory University in Atlanta, Ga. has been conducting research regarding potential health risks from exposure to PBB and other toxic substances for 15 years.

According to university officials the task force was “directly responsible” for getting them to come to Gratiot County.

They cited a phone call from task force member Ed Lorenz, who called when he heard of a new video about the PBB disaster that never mentioned the chemical plant in St. Louis where PBB was manufactured, and where townspeople and workers were exposed through inhalation as well as ingestion.

Emory researchers were intrigued and wanted to learn more.

In December, about 300 people turned out at St. Louis City Hall over two days to have their blood tested and became part of the ongoing study.

Next month the researchers will return and spend 10 days at the Mid-Michigan District Health Department in Ithaca conducting additional tests (See the story on the front page of this week’s Herald for dates and times.)

Now after years of wondering whether certain health issues and abnormalities suffered by local residents are linked to contamination exposure they may finally be discovered.

Yeah, maybe they’ve “ruffled some feathers” at times, but members of the Pine River Superfund Citizen’s Task Force have worked tirelessly over the years on behalf of the community and should feel proud and be congratulated for their accomplishments.

Not only has St. Louis but all of Gratiot County has benefited from the efforts of this pestering, pushy radical group of volunteers.

(Greg Nelson is the editor of the Gratiot County Herald. He can be reached by email at greg@gcherald.com or by calling 989-875-4151, ext. 110.)