Miller blasts state environmental agency over green 'ooze' leak on I-696

Macomb County Public Works Commissioner Candice Miller on Tuesday blasted the state environmental agency for failing to ensure a Madison Heights business responsible for green "ooze" leaching on to Interstate 696 was "properly cleaned up."

Miller responded to a Detroit News report that the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy told the Environmental Protection Agency in March that there was a low probability that contaminants would spread, spokesman Dan Heaton confirmed Tuesday.

Candice Miller, Public Works Commissioner, gives her remarks during the press conference.

In December, 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.

Miller said she ran for public works commissioner after leaving Congress to keep Lake St. Clair clean and that the "green ooze along I-696 represents a failure in this effort." The Harrison Township Republican also complained about the red tape she has encountered with state officials, including those in the administration of Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

"Uncovered by media reports, the Michigan EGLE — the very agency tasked with protecting our lake and our environment — failed in its responsibility to ensure a contaminated business site in Madison Heights was properly cleaned up, despite this site having been a known offender for many years," Miller said in a Tuesday statement.

"Acting on this faulty state report, the U.S. EPA took no further action to remediate this site. Now we have potential contamination spreading well beyond this single site in Madison Heights."

State officials gave the March site assessment of Electro-Plating Services to the EPA, which found the southern Oakland County site was ineligible for Superfund status, a federal cleanup program targeting the nation's most contaminated sites.

The department continues to coordinate with other agencies to "review decades of decision-making and testing at this site" and start a "formal review of pollution inspection procedures" that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer ordered Monday, spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said Tuesday.

"Those processes will help determine if there were gaps in the site analysis, and/or improvements that could be made," Greenberg said. "In the near term, soil borings began Thursday morning as part of an EPA assessment, and EGLE is working closely with federal, state, local and community partners — including Commissioner Miller’s office — to ensure health, safety and a thorough analysis of site hazards.

In a Monday statement, Whitmer also said she and Attorney General Dana Nessel, a fellow Democrat, are reviewing the possibility of filing criminal charges against the Madison Heights business.

Electro-Plating Services owner Gary Sayers is already scheduled to spend a year in federal prison for the illegal handling of hazardous waste and has been ordered to repay the federal government $1.5 million for the EPA's initial 2017 clean-up of the site. Miller has called the EPA's clean-up "superficial."

Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, environmental department director Liesl Clark and Lt. Gov. Garlin Gilchrist on Feb 4, 2019.

The city of Madison Heights is suing Sayers’ plating operation in Oakland County Circuit Court, where it seeks an order for him to demolish and safely dispose of three 1950-circa buildings, including the building linked to the I-696 leak, or let the city do the work. A civil trial is scheduled to begin Jan. 13.

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.

In her Monday statement, Whitmer blamed Republicans for Michigan's environmental problems. 

"This situation demonstrates the need for broad reforms to address problems of critical underfunding and understaffing at the department following eight years of one-party control in Lansing," she said. "It’s time for Republicans in the Legislature to ensure EGLE has the technology and resources it needs to keep the public safe. They should also pass ‘Polluter Pay’ legislation championed by Democrats in the Legislature that will force polluters to clean up the mess they make." 

In another complaint, Miller said her office is seeking to "expand and upgrade" the Chapaton Retention Basin in St. Clair Shores to reduce sewer run-off into Lake St. Clair. But, she said, EGLE officials are telling her that combined sewer runoffs don't affect water quality.

"It would be very helpful to the lake and our environment if EGLE evaluated how their efforts have been working as a whole, eliminating where they work at cross purposes," Miller said.

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