Infamous Michigan chemical plant cleanup gets $9.7M from EPA

ST. LOUIS, MI -- A major Michigan Superfund site is getting nearly $10 million from the Environmental Protection Agency this year to start cleaning up the toxic leftovers from an infamous chemical plant that made now-banned pesticides and fire retardants.

The EPA will spend $9.7 million to begin work in a polluted field along the Pine River in St. Louis where Velsicol Chemical Co. once operated a factory that manufactured DDT, among other compounds.

The money is a drop in the bucket of what's needed to clean up the entire site, but local advocates are thrilled anyway because it's a sign that remediation efforts are moving.

"We were looking at another construction season without much happening," said Jane Keon, chair of the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force. "Now, we're looking at a lot of activity." 

The factory was demolished and buried in 1982; placed under a clay cap that did not keep the massive chemical contamination underneath from leaching through the soil and groundwater into nearby neighborhoods and the adjacent river.

Today, the 52-acre former factory site is a toxic field behind a fence. The citizen task force has been pushing the EPA to begin cleaning up the plant site for years. The town would like to reclaim the land for public use someday.

The EPA has spent money in the past cleaning up toxic sediment in the river, nearby residential soil and installing a groundwater treatment system around the site perimeter. However, this new funding represents the first actual remediation money for cleaning up the toxic plant site -- the main cache of underground pollution.

That's significant because once a Superfund cleanup starts receiving funding, the agency generally keeps allocating some on a regular basis to continue remediation.

 

Without stable funding, Michigan Superfund cleanups creep along

Without stable funding, Michigan Superfund cleanups creep along

EPA doles out money to the "worst first."

 

This fall, the EPA says it will start in-situ thermal treatment on the site, which involves sticking electrified rods into the ground to boil off buried chemicals. The work is expected to last about 18 months.

Keon said the cleanup will occur on 10 acres on the west side of the factory site, where its believed Velsicol had a dredge pond for dumping chemical waste.

What can't be burned underground will be captured as a liquid and gas, and transported to a hazardous waste landfill, Keon said.

About 250 different chemicals are buried on site. One of the most concerning is 1,2-Dibromo-3-chloropropane (DBCP), formerly used in a now-banned pesticide called Fumazone. The chemical causes sterility in males who inhale it.

"That's why they want to deal with it underground, so it's not released into the air," Keon said.

Keon credited the EPA Region 5 team with finally getting agency headquarters to send money to St. Louis. Money for Superfund sites across the country is competitive due to limited amounts available after Congress let the tax on polluters that paid for cleanups expire in 1995. Taxpayers pick up the tab on Superfund sites now.

Long term funding for the site is a question under the Trump administration, which is seeking a 30 percent cut in EPA's Superfund budget in 2018. EPA administrator Scott Pruitt has defended that budget proposal, even though he's called Superfund a major priority.

Through bankruptcy, Velsicol shed its liability for St. Louis long ago. The company is now owned by Arsenal Capital, a private equity firm.

The $9.7 million will also pay for designing a cleanup plan for a part of the site where Velsicol manufactured DDT, a pesticide once widely used to control malaria and other insect-borne diseases. Also funded this year is planning for a waste pit where Velsicol burned chemicals across the river, which is a separate Superfund site altogether.

The factory closed in 1978 after Velsicol poisoned about 9 million people in Michigan though a colossal logistics failure. In 1973, instead of delivering a cattle feed supplement, Velsicol contaminated the state food supply with Firemaster, a flame retardant -- causing one of the largest chemical poisonings in the western world. Researchers say many in Michigan still have elevated blood levels of polybrominated biphenyl (PBB) from consuming contaminated meat and dairy.

 

43 years after chemical mix-up, Michigan blood shows elevated toxin levels

43 years after chemical mix-up, Michigan blood shows elevated toxin levels

Infamous Michigan Superfund site has long, toxic legacy.

 

Velsicol leveled the factory and clay-capped the site, but the river later required a 10-year, $100 million removal of 750,000 cubic yards of contaminated sediment.

In 2015, the EPA removed tons of DDT-contaminated soil from a neighborhood near the plant after birds that had eaten polluted worms began dropping from the sky.

Also in 2015, St. Louis began getting drinking water from nearby Alma after a DDT breakdown product was discovered in local wells. Part of the 2017 EPA funds are paying for water mains into the city from new wells 10 miles outside of town.

Total cleanup in St. Louis could cost between $300 million and half a billion dollars.