Inside the shuttered factory where I-696 ooze allegedly originated
Madison Heights — A 2016 state inspection of a facility where the Interstate 696 green ooze allegedly originated found "numerous open, unlabeled, leaking containers," including hazardous and volatile chemicals left open and leaking, according to a state report.
The shuttered Electro-Plating Services plant, located in the 945 E. 10 Mile, is believed to be the source of the ooze, which was the result of groundwater contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a carcinogen, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.
The owner had been cited for issues with the facility as far back as 1996, according to the state.
Water testing results are expected Friday, a week after the ooze appeared on eastbound Interstate 696 in Madison Heights, officials say. The resulting clean-up effort, officials say, could last through the holidays. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took water samples, and the results of its testing are expected Friday, an EGLE statement said.
"Because of the potential for release to our rivers and lakes," authorities sprang into action immediately, as I-696 storm drains feed into the Clinton River, which feeds into Lake St. Clair, the statement said.
According to a 70-page cease-and-desist order report issued by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in December 2016, "staff...observed the EPS facility to be in a significant state of disrepair with questionable structural integrity."
The cease-and-desist order uses the word "imminent" 17 times and "substantial" 16 times in describing the threat posed by the materials.
That December, the Madison Heights Fire Department declared the building "unfit for occupancy," a determination the department reached "after conducting numerous inspections over the last year," according to a letter penned by Fire Marshal Paul Biliti.
"I find that your building is not suited for occupancy and operations must be discontinued," Biliti wrote. "Your building and its contents pose a significant and imminent threat to the community. In the event of a fire or chemical release, occupants, employees, first responders and residents within several miles ... could be impacted."
The MDEQ inspected the facility twice in 2016, in May and November, issuing violations a month after both visits.
After the November visit, the state sent out a violation notice, "alleging, among other things, that (EPS failed) to operate the facility in a manner that minimized the potential for accidental releases of hazardous wastes to the environment and illegal storage of hazardous waste."
The November inspection also found a facility that was "extremely cluttered and filled with numerous containers (estimated over 5,000) of liquid and solid waste, chemicals, equipment and debris."
"Liquids leaking from the plating bath floor are accumulating in the basement 'pit,' a depression in the floor approximately 20 feet wide by 20 feet long, that appears to allow contaminants to seep directly into the soil beneath the building," the report said.
On Dec. 16, 2016, the Michigan department of Health and Human Services "made a determination ... that the conditions at Respondent's property are an imminent and substantial hazard to public health," according to the cease-and-desist order.
"The designee of the director of the DHHS found that should such an incident occur, it would be very difficult to evacuate people quickly from this densely populated area around respondent's property before they suffered serious health effects from such an exposure," the order reads.
The order required EPS to "immediately cease all manufacturing operations ... including all plating operations," and that those not be resumed until the state terminated the order.
In November 2019, the company was ordered to pay roughly $1.5 million and owner Gary Sayers received one year in prison for illegally storing hazardous waste.
The money was to be restitution for the cash EPA's Superfund program spent cleaning up and disposing of the hazardous waste, according to a statement from the U.S. Department of Justice issued in November 2019.
According to the feds, "starting in 1996 (the state) repeatedly sent (Sayers) warnings about his illegal handling of hazardous waste," and in 2005 he pleaded guilty in state court to illegally transporting hazardous waste.
But the problems persisted for another decade, culminating in Madison Heights revoking its occupancy permit and the state ordering the cease-and-desist.
The EPA's clean-up effort began in Jan. 2017 "after determining that nature and threats posed by the stored hazardous waste required a time-critical response."
The cleanup took a year and wrapped up in Jan. 2018.
"Since 1967, the company has used copper, tin, bronze, cadmium, nickel, chrome, gold, silver, zinc and lead for various electroplating operations, leaving behind hazardous wastes," according to the EPA Superfund website for EPS.
Madison Heights is suing the owner of the property in an effort to demolish the building, according to EGLE.
The U.S. EPA could not immediately be reached on Tuesday as officials were off for the Christmas holiday. EGLE representatives could not be immediately reached Tuesday.