Mich. DEQ chief: ‘Vapor intrusion’ poses health threat

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A “significant public health threat” is brewing in Michigan because of chemical vapors that percolate up from the ground of former industrial or commercial sites and can leak into nearby homes, Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether said.

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality Director Heidi Grether

Grether told lawmakers during a Tuesday budget presentation that there could be 4,000 sites in Michigan, many in Metro Detroit, where potentially harmful vapors could pose a problem to human health. She asked legislators to consider beefing up the department’s 2018 budget request by $2.6 million to dedicate eight employees to the issue full time.

“We’re concerned that this could pose a significant public health threat,” Grether said. “So we need additional staff and resources to evaluate the sites” and start mitigation projects where needed.

Metal de-greasers and a dry cleaning chemical contaminated soil and groundwater at former commercial and industrial sites and can result in chemical vapors filtering up into basements.

Experts says the issue is not new and has been known about for “a dozen years or so,” and can include migration from gas station underground fuel tanks and storage tanks.

The DEQ is working with the state’s Department of Health and Human Services to investigate 14 “high priority” potential sites in Metro Detroit where chemical vapors could threaten human health. But hundreds, potentially thousands, of possible vapor intrusion sites in the region have not been tested, said Paul Owens, a district supervisor with the DEQ in Metro Detroit.

The chemicals can migrate off-site about 100 feet from former industrial sites and filter up through cracks in nearby basements in vapor form, Owens said.

Several tenants who were renting rooms at 2051 Rosa Parks were evacuated from the Detroit building on Nov. 14 after the chemical evaporated and filtered up through the building’s basement, Owens said. The property has since been closed by the Detroit health department after a private environmental consultant discovered detectable levels of trichloroethylene, or TCE, in the indoor air, he said. Lincoln Brass Works used to own the property and had used pits full of the chemical as a metal de-greaser.

DEQ testing of adjacent property on Vermont Street did not show any detectable levels of TCE. The department now is trying to find a liable party associated with the property, Owens said.

Chemicals such as TCE and tetrachloroethylene, a dry cleaning chemical commonly known as PERC, were used for commercial and industrial purposes. They contaminated soil and groundwater near many former industrial and dry cleaning sites, and can turn into a vapor and filter up from the ground into homes through basements, said DEQ toxicology expert Christine Flaga.

The two chemicals can cause neurological and developmental issues, Flaga said. TCE can cause dizziness, fatigue, skin rashes or headaches in the short term, but can damage the nervous system, kidneys or liver and cause developmental issues over the long run, she said.

PERC can cause liver tumors or neuro-toxicity, such as decreased color vision or brain function.

It’s an “emerging issue for all states,” Grether said. But it has become more apparent nationwide as data emerged showing where such vapors might be an issue, according to the DEQ.

House Republicans say they’re evaluating the proposed DEQ budget and say it’s still too early to comment on it. The DEQ budget increase request would be a small part of its overall $510.8 million budget put forth by Gov. Rick Snyder.

But the chairwoman of the House appropriations subcommittee that deals with DEQ’s budget, Rep. Mary Whiteford, R-Allegan, said she wants to “make sure whatever we do is conservative and addresses the problem” at the same time.

“Anytime we take money out of the general fund I am concerned,” said Whiteford, who House Speaker Tom Leonard relies on for making the first budget recommendation for the full House Appropriations Committee to vote on before it goes to the House floor for consideration.

The department doesn’t yet know how widespread the problem is, said Rhonda Klann, a district supervisor in the DEQ’s Remediation and Redevelopment division. It found the 4,000 potential sites by assembling different data sources and is in the process of hiring a staffer to create a map of the sites to help in its investigation.

“It’s not contaminants that are new; it is the realization that some of the more recent technological data and science indicates that the concentrations that pose a risk are much lower than what we had considered before,” Klann said.

DEQ and HHS are looking into sites in Canton Township, Dearborn, Detroit, Inkster, Livonia, Dearborn Heights, Wyandotte and Plymouth.

While it’s an issue across the state, Klann said vapor intrusion may be more prevalent in the urban region because of its higher concentration of dry cleaners and industry.

The DEQ found high levels of PERC at 260 Lilley in Canton Township, where a dry cleaner used to operate. Other “high priority” sites include former dry cleaners at 5320 Schaefer in Dearborn, one in Inkster, the existing Ford Livonia Transmission Plant and the USA Investment Co. LLC in Dearborn Heights, according to the department.

DEQ’s Owens said his district does not have enough staff to properly investigate vapor intrusion in southeast Michigan. The 17 project managers are not dedicated to the issue full time and haven’t done any air testing at most of the hundreds of potential area sites, he said.

A loss of 307 DEQ staff members since 2008 could harm public health if the department keeps losing workers, Grether told lawmakers as she requested a budget that is 0.5 percent lower than this year’s $513.5 million.

She asked for another $14.9 million in “stopgap” money to cover the cost of existing cleanup and brownfield remediation sites that are currently paid from a department fund that has nearly dried up.

A University of Michigan expert said it’s not a new issue.

“People have known about vapor intrusion for a dozen or so years,” said UM environmental health and sciences professor Stuart Batterman.

Batterman said it is not always easy to detect where such volatile compounds might be present.

“Vapor intrusion is a pervasive problem throughout the country, and you will find the problem near leaking underground fuel tanks, storage tanks,” said UM environmental health sciences professor Edward Zellers.

A gas station might be near a couple of homes, but it is not always possible to detect from smell or another indication that fumes or another vapor could be leaking into basements, Batterman said.

“Like so many legacy pollution problems, it’s really a blight on the countryside and people’s health is certainly at risk,” Zellers said, “so I fully support any efforts to look into this further and remediate and give it the attention that it’s due.”

At a the committee hearing, Rep. Yousef Rabhi, D-Ann Arbor, criticized state officials for not taking the issue seriously in the past. Groundwater in portions of Ann Arbor and nearby townships is tainted by suspected carcinogen 1,4-dioxane — a remnant of industrial processes at the former Gelman Sciences Inc. plant on the city’s west side that has spread into the shallow groundwater near Slauson Middle School.

“This is something that we should have been paying attention to for a long time because it’s been an issue for a long time,” said Rabhi, adding that his constituents are concerned about the Ann Arbor dioxane plume.

“We should have been focusing on these issues a long time ago because people’s health is on the table.”

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