St. Louis Citizen Task Force to DEQ: Hold EPA accountable

Tuesday, October 14, 2014, 1:00 pm

Beth Bellor for the Daily News

ST. LOUIS — A state official touring the cleanup of a defunct chemical plant and surrounding neighborhoods was greeted with a plea to hold the EPA more accountable.

Dan Wyant, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, visited the Superfund site left behind by Michigan Chemical and Velsicol Chemical. His agency is funding a major cleanup of the nearby St. Louis neighborhood in partnership with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, with more than 45 nearby properties getting new soil this year and 53 scheduled for 2015. The cleanup includes bringing a new supply of drinking water to St. Louis from the Gratiot Area Water Authority, and he also toured the treatment plant that is being expanded.

“During the past year, I’ve been all over the state to visit sites DEQ staff work with on a daily basis,” Wyant said. “It gives me a better understanding of what is happening in communities and how that connects with the department’s goals of environmental stewardship, economic development and customer service.”

Media were not allowed on the plant site per EPA safety regulations, but Wyant invited area legislators to join him.

“At the Superfund site in St. Louis, there’s a lot of work still to be done, but we’re making progress,” he said, noting neighborhood work as well. “This site is part of Michigan’s legacy contamination, the pollution that came from being a manufacturing state in an era before strong environmental protections. We know it’s an ongoing issue, and we’re focused on cleaning it up.”

Among those on hand were three members of the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force, a community action group.

“It can move me to tears to see shovels finally being put in the ground in the neighborhood and in test pits out on the plant site,” said Jane Keon, secretary and longtime chairperson. “Still, there is no relaxation. We have been fighting EPA all year to get them to excavate more than they wanted to in the ANP (adjacent or nearby properties).”

She took her concerns to the director. “I spoke with Director Wyant about our observations concerning EPA’s tendency to cut corners to save money on our projects. Since we don’t have a responsible party such as Velsicol that EPA can keep watch over, EPA sort of becomes the responsible party, and we need DEQ to hold EPA accountable for their decisions in dealing with the pollution in our community,” she said.

“As an example, we understood from the proposed plan that the alleys, sidewalks and streets in the ANP would be sampled for contamination along with the yards, and dug up if necessary. When EPA began the project, they decided to do nothing for alleys, sidewalks and streets, not even sample,” Keon added. “Our concerns went unheard, but luckily the city spoke up and insisted on a more thorough cleanup than what EPA wanted to do. We need DEQ to take the role of speaking up and insisting, particularly on the plant site and downstream in the river, because the city doesn’t have jurisdiction over those operable units like they do in the neighborhood.”

State Sen. John Moolenaar, R-Midland, was one of the few legislators to join the tour. While he does not represent Gratiot County now, he hopes to in Congress, and noted the pollution issue stretches beyond the county borders.

“Gratiot County, the St. Louis area, the Pine River, the watershed is obviously important to my district, so thinking regionally it was an important issue to learn about,” he said.

The 103-mile-long Pine River begins in Mecosta County’s Wheatland Township, flowing through St. Louis on its way to Midland County, where it joins the Chippewa River about two miles before the Chippewa flows into the Tittabawassee River.

“There were a lot of positives, encouraging signs, where people were getting remediation going on. There’s new technology being looked at to treat the contaminate,” Moolenaar said. He pointed out the investment being made — about $20 million this year, with more federal money committed for next year — and an interest in seeing ongoing work “done and done right.”

He saw the frustration that Keon expressed and said, “There needs to be a stronger relationship between the community, EPA and DEQ in terms of communication and problem solving.”

Wyant took notes and promised to work to improve communications, Moolenaar added.

“I think it said a lot to have the director tour the site. He asked great questions. He’s a problem solver.”