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Latest PCB fix in St. Clair Shores creates little hope

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

St. Clair Shores — Bob Johnson has little hope that an environmental problem will be fixed by the massive hole that’s been dug at the intersection toward the end of his block.

Crews have been out there for several weeks digging to remove a pair of manhole vaults — the latest effort in nearly 15 years of work aimed at solving a major local environmental riddle. Polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) have contaminated two of the city’s canals leading to Lake St. Clair since 2001, keeping residents from swimming or fishing and raising fears about the loss of home value.

Johnson, who has lived on Bon Brae for 40 years, has seen enough projects that ultimately failed to discover the source of the PCBs or stop the contamination that he isn’t getting excited about this latest work.

“It just seems that if they haven’t found the source by now,” he said, “then what are we really doing here?”

Typically used as coolant fluids in transformers and capacitors, PCBs can contaminate the environment when improperly handled or disposed of. The chemicals — banned by the federal government in the 1970s — have been found to cause illnesses from acne and rashes to liver cancer.

Local and state officials oversaw most of the dredging and digging work aimed at solving the problem for roughly a decade after the contamination in St. Clair Shores was discovered.

There was new hope when the Environmental Protection Agency listed the area, called the 10 Mile Drain, as a Superfund site in 2010. It cleared the way for the federal government’s resources and expertise to take a crack at the problem.

But the past five years have not brought the swift resolution some hoped for.

For years, PCBs have been known to pool underneath the intersection at Bon Brae and Harper, where they find their way into the underground drain system that empties out in the Lange and Revere canals several blocks away.

Removing the vaults is the latest approach, one that EPA officials hope will “immediately reduce the volume of contamination and prevent the seepage of PCB contamination in the ... storm sewer system.”

EPA officials could not be reached for comment regarding the project. Brian Babcock, St. Clair Shores’ director of public works and water, believes this latest action will eventually stop the flow of PCBs into the canals.

When the work is done, contaminants that flow underground into the intersection will be captured beneath the drain system, keeping them from the canals.

“This is a first step to see if it can slow down these high concentrations,” Babcock said.

Mona Kolacki and her husband have lived on Revere Street since 1996 in one of the dozens of homes that back up to a contaminated canal. The latest 10 Mile Drain project stirs mixed emotions.

“Part of me feels like ‘Well, here we go again,’ ” Mona Kolacki said.

She said she feels there eventually will be a solution but it will require another dredging of the Lange and Revere canals.

In the past, theories abounded about locations where old transformers used to be stored, allowing contaminants to seep into the ground over many years. But Babcock said it’s possible that PCB-contaminated materials were spread out over a wide area, possibly used as dust control.

“I think finally we have better answers than we’ve ever had before,” he said. “It’s obvious to everyone now that there is no single source where PCBs were dumped.”

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