Vapor contamination plagues Franklin shops despite state clean-up

Michael Gerstein
Special to The Detroit News
DEQ staff and contractors show off indoor air "scrubbers" in 
Franklin Village Plaza which will be reinstalled to help with the cleanup before they test the indoor air again.

Franklin — Residents and state officials here are scrambling for answers after the discovery of a spike in potentially dangerous indoor vapors despite a large-scale cleanup effort.

In October, inspectors found chemical vapors for trichloroethylene, or TCE, and a common dry-cleaning agent called perchloroethylene, or perc, above state health standards in the Franklin Village Plaza's five shops.

They were initially puzzled because they already had installed a system that sucks up air contaminated by decades-old pollution in the plaza's historic building less than a half-mile from the Franklin Cider Mill. There had been a mandatory evacuation of the shops in March for nearly three weeks.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency classified TCE as a human carcinogen in 2011. In high enough doses over an extended period of time, perc causes central nervous system issues and liver cancer in animals, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.

Jayne DePotter, 57, ran a jewelry-making school and studio called Fritz and Friends in the plaza for 10 years and said she believes TCE and perc vapors are behind her past health problems.

Years ago, DePotter said she was placed on a cancer watch by her doctor after experiencing strange kidney and liver symptoms. She went to three different specialists and underwent a biopsy, although no cancer was discovered.

DePotter now knows that carcinogenic chemicals were buried near her studio.

“That means the whole 10 years I was there, we were breathing in these awful vapors. And yes, I’m very concerned,” she said. “I’m going to be dealing with this for the rest of my life. The art studio was ground zero.”

State health officials do not know whether any of the individuals who faced long-term exposure are likely to experience health problems, said Lisa Quiggle, a state toxicologist with the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. Customers who stay in a store for 30-45 minutes are not likely to be affected, she stressed. 

DEQ staff and contractors have been working in contaminated buildings without any protective gear, including a contracted environmental engineer who is often in the former jewelry studio.

At levels measured nearly 20 times higher than the state standard, it’s impossible to know how many years it would take before people could experience chronic health problems, Quiggle said, adding that levels may have spiked during times when shops used cleaners containing TCE.

No long-term epidemiological studies have been conducted at the levels that spurred the state's health department to issue voluntary — and one mandatory — evacuation notices, Quiggle said.

More than $400,000 has been spent so far on cleaning up and monitoring the Franklin site, according to the DEQ.

EPA's delayed TCE ban

At first, state officials said the high indoor air levels of two common industrial chemicals in Franklin were due to pollution from the 1930s through the 1970s underneath the plaza. Owners ran shops in the plaza for years, not knowing old contamination could pose a potential health problem.

Health and environment officials said they now believe household cleaners containing a solvent the EPA sought to ban at the close of the Obama administration could be responsible for recent indoor air spikes of TCE.

Terri Cooper, of Franklin Village Boutique, works in her store in the Franklin Village Plaza. Her business has been hurt by an ongoing public perception that the air inside her store isn't safe to breathe, as the plaza has had a recurrent vapor intrusion issue emerging from buried underground solvents.

The business with the highest TCE reading had been using a chemical called PICRIN, a stain remover whose active ingredient is TCE. The business owner said it is used once every two or three months, is kept in a sealed jar in between uses and will be safely disposed of when finished.

“It’s causing some of the spikes,” Quiggle said. 

Officials just don’t know to what extent.

The Obama administration's proposed prohibition of TCE and two other toxic chemicals for consumer products was halted after President Donald Trump took office in mid-January 2017 and appointed former Oklahoma Attorney General Scott Pruitt to lead the EPA.

“EPA’s plan balances its statutory requirements to issue regulations and its commitment to providing regulatory certainty through improvements to existing regulations that were flawed, outdated, ineffective, or unnecessarily burdensome,” Pruitt said in December 2017.

The chemicals are commonly used in degreasing products and spot cleaners. Both can evaporate into the air from contaminated soil and groundwater and cause problems years after their initial disposal.

The EPA should ban the use of TCE in household cleaners, said Quiggle, who is in charge of a state vapor intrusion unit. 

State officials started addressing toxic vapor problems across Michigan in 2016. At the time, the state identified more than 4,000 sites where DEQ Director Heidi Grether warned that fumes might pose a "significant public health threat."

The DEQ has been involved in 32 site cleanups this year in which air filtration systems were installed to address vapor intrusion issues, including in Grand Rapids, Wyandotte and Brighton.

A system sucks up contaminated air from the ground underneath the Franklin Village Plaza building and deposits it into this 55 gallon drum, which strips it of toxic chemicals before it is ejected outside via rooftop vents. The drums are taken to secure landfills, once full.

The issues in Franklin became a priority after sampling elsewhere in the village led inspectors to the Franklin plaza by happenstance, said Mitch Adelman, who helps oversee DEQ remediation efforts in southeast Michigan.

State officials looked at data for 709 sites known to have contamination to identify the most pressing potential vapor intrusion problems, Adelman said.

The department doesn’t have enough funding to address contamination at roughly 500 such sites where vapor intrusion issues have been identified, he said.

In 2016, 276 Michigan residents were evacuated from their homes, apartments or places of work due to toxic chemical vapors, according to a Detroit News open records request.

That included 224 people from a Detroit preschool center where a Department of Environmental Quality official previously said only “several” people were evacuated. Among those evacuated from the preschool were 80 children.

State thresholds exceeded

In February, state officials recorded indoor air samples of TCE and perc at the Franklin location above the state’s public health threshold. Levels then spiked on Oct. 3, after installing a system that sucks up toxic vapors from underneath the building, leading officials to believe that cleaning supplies were behind the uptick.

“Much lower concentrations (than we previously thought) can cause unacceptable risks,” DEQ's Adelman said. 

The state indoor air threshold for perchloroethylene, a dry cleaning solvent, is 82 micrograms per cubic meter. In early October, the Franklin Village Cleaners, a dry cleaner in the plaza, had a reading of 950 — more than 11 times the state standard.

The reading was more than three times the levels recorded in an initial February test, which pegged perc levels at 300 micrograms per cubic meter. It also was three times higher than in March, when the state ordered a mandatory evacuation of the affected businesses.

Officials evacuated the businesses because they did not yet know in March what health risk might have been associated with a tank they discovered underneath a tailor shop in the plaza, said Kim Ethridge, a DEQ project manager in southeast Michigan. They later removed part of the tank and found that it contained TCE, perc and other petroleum products.

The highest TCE sample also came in October, at 220 micrograms per cubic meter, up from 60 when testing began in February. The state threshold for TCE is 12 micrograms per cubic meter.

The DEQ has not conducted another 12-hour indoor air sample since Oct. 3 and plans to temporarily reinstall more indoor air “scrubbers” to clean up the air, Ethridge said.

“We are pretty bummed to find that the indoor air levels did not reduce as significantly as our (underground air) levels did. So now we’re trying to figure out why,” she said, adding that officials are “confident” they will solve the puzzle.

How firms are affected

Despite a lack of research, Oakland County has been aggressive in warning the public about the ongoing cleanup through a series of press releases — much to the chagrin of local business owners.

“Our responsibility is to notify the public,” said Leigh-Anne Stafford, a health official for Oakland County.

But the county warnings have been “really harmful” to business, said Terri Cooper, owner of the Franklin Village Boutique.

“You read it and think you’re gonna die the minute you step in and, for sure, without hesitation, our business has been severely impacted,” Cooper said. “People think we’re still not open.

The shops in Franklin Village Plaza have had problems with potentially toxic fumes emerging from buried underground solvents that can cause public health and environmental concerns.

“I have a cat. He’s perfectly healthy and the spiders are alive and well. Nobody’s dying,” Cooper said, adding that she has experienced no health problems related to exposure. “It’s 100 percent safe.”

While health experts can’t say whether it’s “safe,” they note that customers are not likely to be affected by short-term exposure at these levels. 

State workers continue testing the area and are preparing to broaden their search to surrounding groundwater and soil.

So far, drinking water contamination above state standards has not been discovered, according to the DEQ, which noted that an environmental assessment performed for the Franklin Village Plaza landlord found TCE and perc in the soil and groundwater in 2010 and sent a report to the DEQ in 2011. The contractor did not test indoor air at that time.

In March, Cooper’s business and the four others in the plaza were evacuated when the DEQ found a large tank underneath the building containing TCE and other chemicals.

The businesses on the other side of the street have not been affected by the contamination. But the situation hasn’t stopped customers from asking about it.

“It’s not as bad as they are proclaiming it to be,” said Mary Ann Liut, co-founder of Zieben Mare, an upscale shop selling home finery and jewelry across the street from the plaza.

Jason Dickman, owner of Just Guys Apparel, said he and other members of a Franklin business board called Main Street Franklin are meeting to come up with strategies on how they can get more “positive press.”

“People panic,” Dickman said.

“It’s a positive thing we’re finding out and taking steps to clean up the environment,” said Elina Costello, a local dentist and board chairwoman of Main Street Franklin.

But the stigma of an environmental problem can hurt businesses for years, said Charlie Owens, state director for the National Federation of Independent Business, a nonprofit that represents small businesses.

“People tend to be worried about this stuff,” Owens said. “So it stigmatizes the property, and that’s really more of a challenge to the business, a lot of times, than the actual contamination itself.”

DePotter, the former jewelry school owner, said she could no longer keep her studio open for jewelry-making classes because of customers’ health concerns. 

The studio once boasted about 90 students, including 60 regulars. Before she closed, even the regulars didn’t want to return, DePotter said.

“We just decided that the best thing to do was to close down,” she said.

DePotter said she hasn’t any health flare-ups related to her kidneys or liver since leaving the studio.

She said she’ll keep an eye on it, “and just pray that I got out soon enough.”

Michael Gerstein is a Detroit News freelance writer.