Michigan to EPA in March: 'Ooze' site's risk of spreading pollution low

As recently as this spring, the state of Michigan told federal environmental officials that there was low probability that contaminants would spread from a Madison Heights business now deemed responsible for a green "ooze" leaking onto Interstate 696​​​​​​.​

In a March site assessment of Electro-Plating Services, state officials told the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that the site presented no risk for drinking water contamination and a low risk for contamination migrating offsite.

The EPA's Region 5 — based on that assessment from the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy — found the southern Oakland County site was ineligible for Superfund status, a federal cleanup program targeting the nation's most contaminated sites, according to an EGLE spokeswoman.

Several months after the EPA's decision, green chemicals were detected oozing along the shoulder of eastbound I-696 in Madison Heights, sending state and federal officials scrambling to contain the contaminant, determine how far it had spread and investigate its source. 

State environment officials said they believe the chemical is groundwater contaminated with the carcinogen hexavalent chromium from the nearby Electro-Plating Services facility.

In 2017, the EPA was responsible for a nearly year-long cleanup at the site — one that Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller has called "superficial" — but transferred jurisdiction of the site to the state in 2018. Nearly two years later, the EPA is back drilling test wells in the area around the business to determine the reach of contamination seeping from the facility.

The 37-year-old plating facility has a history of hazardous waste storage violations dating to 1996, including several letters of warning, a consent order with the state, criminal charges for illegally transporting hazardous waste in 2005, and the state's eventual shutdown of the site in 2016.

Some of the notices included a second, related facility in Detroit, according to documents filed this year in a federal lawsuit against the site’s owner.

The site's owner, 77-year-old Gary Sayers of Bloomfield Hills, pleaded guilty in federal court in February to illegally storing hazardous waste without a permit. He received a year in prison and has been ordered to pay almost $1.5 million in restitution.

Sayers does not appear to have reported to prison yet. His lawyer did not return a call Monday seeking comment.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer said Monday her administration is reviewing potential criminal charges against the polluters responsible for the green ooze, and Attorney General Dana Nessel said she would pursue any legal action the governor wants. The state would be the third government agency to seek litigation or file charges if Whitmer and Nessel decide to do so.

Madison Heights is already suing the property owner in Oakland County Circuit Court in an effort to demolish the building. A civil trial is set to begin Jan. 13.

Cleanup, but little followup

The $1.5 million Sayers was ordered to pay last month in federal court covers the cost of the EPA’s cleanup efforts at the Madison Heights site from 2017 through early 2018, when the agency removed over 5,000 containers and pumped 37,000 gallons of hexavalent chromium from the basement.

The agency then “backfilled and compacted” a pit in the facility and did testing to determine if any of the contamination had migrated from the building, the EPA said in a Monday statement.

Four members of Michigan's congressional delegation have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more help cleaning up green ooze

“Upon discovering contamination at depth, EPA referred the site to Michigan EGLE to evaluate it for potential longer-term remediation,” the federal agency said.

The cleanup in 2017 was completed with federal Superfund money even though the site was not considered part of the federal program, said Jill Greenberg, a state environmental spokeswoman.

EGLE assessed the site after the EPA’s cleanup and noted in a March report that there was no potential for drinking water contamination because there were no wells in the area and a low probability of offsite migration because of soil conditions, Greenberg said.

Based on Michigan's findings, the EPA ruled earlier this year the Madison Heights facility was not eligible for Superfund status, she said. But the site was added to a list of locations with “legacy contaminants” in need of assessment and cleanup.

“That assessment had not been undertaken by the time the contaminants were discovered leaking from the embankment,” Greenberg said.

After the leak was discovered this month near I-696, the EPA assisted in removing 7,000 gallons of contaminated water and liquid from the area through 24-hour sump pumps in the “basement pit” of the building and along the embankment wall of I-696.

The EPA will continue to assess what other actions are needed, the agency said Monday.

“This assessment includes drilling test wells to evaluate how far contamination has migrated through area soil,” according to the EPA.

Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner James Nash, who is responsible for water issues in the county where Electro-Plating is located, didn’t respond Monday to a call for comment. 

‘Environmental crimes recidivist’

Along with Whitmer’s call for tougher restrictions and potential criminal charges stemming from the incident, Nessel announced plans Monday to form a criminal unit to focus on environmental prosecutions.

“My administration is actively reviewing all means of accountability, including further criminal charges against the polluter who caused this mess," Whitmer said Monday. "Today I also directed EGLE to conduct a formal review of its pollution inspection procedures to strengthen enforcement and accountability." 

Tests by the EPA of water in storm sewers near the former Electro-Plating Services facility in Madison Heights, above, showed levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing substance, above the standard for drinking water.

But the Democratic governor and attorney general may find there’s not much to recoup from Sayers.

The 77-year-old who inherited the business from his father in 1995 is an “environmental crimes recidivist” who is "confused at times" and was living out of his car prior to his plea in federal court, according to federal filings.

The only hope the federal government had of recovering the cost of cleanup, according to an October filing, was Sayers' planned sale of his Detroit facility for $2.5 million. Sayers was supposed to close on the sale at the end of November, but it is unclear if he ever did.

In recent years, Sayers' facility had fallen out of compliance with federal environmental law in part because of “high regulatory costs,” “foreign competition” and “the economic downturn in 2008,” his lawyer argued in a sentencing memorandum. Sayers is “contrite, humbled and embarrassed” at the prospect of being a convicted felon, the October filing said.

“He feels the stigma of being labeled as such at this late age,” Sayers' lawyer argued in a court document. “He is proud of his country and now feels branded as a felon for the rest of his life and shamed with no hope of expungement.”


Twitter: @DNBethLeBlanc