March 4, 2010 at 1:00 am

Today's Focus

Michigan out of cash to clean up toxic sites

Contamination threatens natural, historic spots

Abandoned toxic sites
Abandoned toxic sites: State funds that have been used to clean up orphan sites -- old industrial properties that are contaminated, but which have no private ownership liable for the cleanup -- are nearly gone.

Mio -- Regulars who fish this area of the Au Sable River -- just west of here -- call it Two-Foot Bend. It's a special place along a river that is known for its special places.

Here, the brown trout draw anglers from all over the state and can be up to 24 inches long. Reeling in one of those monsters is the catch of a lifetime for many.

Like thousands of spots around Michigan, however, this place is being threatened by an orphan site -- an old industrial property that is contaminated, but which has no private ownership liable for the cleanup. And state funds that have been used to clean up these sites are nearly gone.

Just upstream from Two-Foot Bend, in the waters of Perry Creek, contaminants like chromium, nickel, chlorides and tetrachloroethylene have begun to creep in -- all courtesy of the abandoned Hoskins Manufacturing site a half-mile northwest.

Orphan sites like Hoskins come in all forms: from an abandoned mine in southern Iron County, to a vacated finishing and stamping operation in Grand Rapids, to a gutted auto parts plant in northwest Detroit. And they present a host of problems that include tainted groundwater and air while becoming roadblocks to redevelopment.

Michigan has more than 4,000 such sites, and those are the ones the state's environmental officials know about. With the state's economic crunch and the flight of industry to other parts of the world, the number of orphan sites is growing, but the resources to deal with them are not.

To address all of the sites completely -- including everything from remediation and long-term monitoring -- would cost the state at least $10 billion.

In the last two decades, Michigan has funded cleanup and monitoring of orphan sites through a program called Part 201 -- named for its section of the Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act. Michigan residents put more than $1.3 billion into the program through two bond issues, one in 1988 and another a decade later.

This year, the last of that money will run out, and there is no move under way in Michigan to refill the coffers. For the people who treasure spots like Two-Foot Bend, that's a frightening scenario.

"This truly is God's country," said Tom Buhr, who lives nearby in Luzerne. "It's beautiful and we need to preserve it."

Blight

Longtime Detroiters know it as Fisher Body 21, but the glory of the plant's days in the auto industry is hard to see now. Northbound drivers on Interstate 75 coming toward the Interstate 94 interchange are confronted by its six stories of crumbling concrete, steel and graffiti.

"The perception of Detroit suffers because of properties like this," said Donelle Wilkins, executive director of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, a citizens group that advocates for cleaner and healthier communities. "People come through these areas and say how dirty Detroit is and talk about our people. 'Why can't they clean up their neighborhoods?' "

Architect Albert Kahn designed the block-long plant, and construction wrapped up in 1919. Fisher Body Co., an arm of General Motors Corp., was the first tenant, and auto stamping was the name of the game for most of the following 65 years. The process creates chromium solvents and plating, as well as flammable and corrosive wastes.

Carter Color Coat took ownership of the property in 1990 before declaring bankruptcy two years later and leaving no liable party to foot the bill for cleanup. In December 2008, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency found asbestos and polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), a suspected carcinogen, on the site. Federal officials subsequently removed large amounts of material from the property, but issues remain.

"In its current state, the site is an acute threat to human health and safety," a state assessment reads. "The building has been declared 'open and dangerous' by the city of Detroit. Peeling lead-based paint and asbestos-containing debris may become airborne and pose a risk to human health through ingestion or inhalation."

The neighborhood includes a few small businesses across the street and a residential area within a half-mile. In past years, Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality could have stepped in and spent the estimated $4.1 million to clean up the site with Part 201 money. But those days are gone.

"We've wound down most of our ongoing cleanup projects," said Bob McCann, spokesman for Michigan's Department of Natural Resources and Environment, the new agency formed in 2010 by the merger of the Natural Resources and Environmental Quality departments. "By the end of the year, we'll have no cleanup program."

With the city of Detroit in no position to take on a multimillion-dollar cleanup, the Carter Color Coat/Fisher plant sits idle.

Health

There was a time when residents along North 34th Street in Richland, northwest of Battle Creek, were essentially drinking chrome. In the late 1970s, their tap water contained hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen that had drifted into groundwater and residential wells from a nearby plastics plating company.

Kathy Owens and her husband arrived in the area 18 years ago, and at the time, Part 201 funds were being used to provide a safe water supply.

"When we moved here, they had drinking water delivered in gallon jugs to our porch," she said. "There was a big storage tank out in the driveway that they trucked water in for and that was hooked up to the house system. So for the faucets and bathtubs and so forth, we used that."

Within two years, the state had hooked Owens and other residents to the municipal water system.

Michigan has spent more than $10 million doing cleanup work at the site as well as a former dry cleaning operation nearby. Monitoring the situation to prevent problems could cost nearly as much.

In Richland and several other Michigan communities, officials have found that contaminated groundwater is on the move -- inching closer to well fields, streams and lakes where it could cause major problems.

In Antrim County, a groundwater plume tainted with trichloroethylene has spread six miles from a former auto parts manufacturing plant in Mancelona to a residential/golf resort area. Contamination levels are 200 times greater than what is acceptable for human health.

Now, the plume is reaching the Cedar River and threatening the nearby well field that is one of two sources for the area's drinking water.

Hooking up residences and businesses to municipal water lines and trying to remediate the Mancelona site has already cost the state $17.8 million. To continue monitoring the plume and conducting additional line extensions, state officials estimate it will cost $10 million more.

Chuck Edwards, of the Northwest Michigan Community Health Agency, has been tracking the plume. His work is paid for by Part 201.

"We'll probably have to wait and see what we'll do if (the state) drops the funding," he said. "Will we have to notify the property owners in the area and let them know they're on their own? We'll have to see."

In Richland, legal efforts to compel the plastics company to fix the problem eventually failed in the early 1990s when a judge decided the company could not afford the work, so the state stepped in. A contamination plume from the plastics plant stretched 1 3/4 miles off the site at one point. Through a groundwater pumping system paid for by Part 201, that plume has been reduced to a quarter-mile.

"The sad part is that if there isn't a replacement funding source, we'll have no choice," said Mark DuCharme, a MDNRE senior environmental quality analyst. "We have to turn off the pumping wells. Our contractors, we can't ask them to work for free. We would cease to control the plume, and it would likely increase in size again."

Economic development

Two years ago, marketing downtown sites in Kalamazoo for redevelopment was hard enough for Jerome Kisscorni, head of the city's economic development corporation. The pending end of Michigan's Part 201 program is making at least one of his assignments next to impossible.

For just over a century, the site at 401 E. Alcott St. was home to paper-making operations. It's now known as the Performance Paper property for one of its previous tenants. Major production activities came to a stop in 1997, but they left behind PCB contamination in the soil as well as Portage Creek, which runs through the property.

Despite efforts to remove contaminated material, including asbestos, from the site and help from the EPA, there is about $3 million worth of work left to be done -- work state officials said they can no longer afford.

Kisscorni envisions a mixed-use development that encompasses the Performance Paper site and features a business park, natural areas and recreation fields -- something to bring in property tax dollars and jobs. That project is now in limbo

"Right now, all I do is approve purchase orders for fences to keep people out," he said.

The domino effect of this orphan site is easy to see. Houses sit boarded up. Nearly every street has several homes with bright orange foreclosure notices posted on the front door.

"Today, that neighborhood is probably one of the largest rental areas in the city," said Steve Snyder, a RE/MAX real estate agent who handles properties in the area.

"It's a neighborhood that's kind of been stigmatized or has developed a reputation as a problem area because of that.

"And the values here have plummeted. Five years ago, the neighborhood's average home sale price was probably in the $70,000 range. Today it's probably in the $15,000 to $25,000 range. And $25,000 is probably pushing it."

jlynch@detnews.com">jlynch@detnews.com (313) 222-2034

Detroit's Carter Color Coat/Fisher Body 21 site was abandoned in the 1990s. Toxic materials have been removed from the property, but it is still considered a health threat. / Elizabeth Conley / The Detroit News
Kathy Owens is from Richland, where contaminated groundwater is inching ...
"In its current state, the site is an acute threat to human health ...
Soil is sampled at Ortonville in northern Oakland County. Michigan has ...
The Au Sable River in Mio is being threatened by contaminants from the ...