Tests show high contaminant levels near green ooze site

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Madison Heights — Preliminary test results of soil and water near the building where a green chemical oozed onto Interstate 696 show high levels of multiple contaminants, but no risk to drinking water intakes in Lake St. Clair, a state agency said Friday.

A green liquid determined to include hexavalent chromium seeps out of wall along the shoulder of the eastbound lanes of I-696 just west of Couzens in Madison Heights last week.

Tests by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency of water in storm sewers near the former Electro-Plating Services facility showed levels of hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing substance, at 0.14 milligrams per liter, above the 0.10 mg/l standard for drinking water, according to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

The storm sewer eventually enters Lake St. Clair miles away, where, EGLE said in a news release, concentrations would be well below detectable levels "although still a significant concern for incremental accumulation in the ecosystem."

More:Inside the shuttered factory where I-696 ooze allegedly originated

The tests also showed high levels of other contaminants in groundwater between the building and the I-696 service drive, including chromium, trichloroethylene and cyanide, all of which were used in the Electro-Plating facility, EGLE said.

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.

Electro-Plating Services was shut down amidst a 2017 Superfund environmental cleanup. The owner-operator, Gary A. Sayers, pleaded guilty in federal court to illegal handling of hazardous waste and is to surrender next month to begin serving a one-year prison term.

Sayers of Bloomfield Hills has also been ordered to repay the federal government $1.5 million already spent cleaning up the site, which is apparently leaching toxic materials into the ground.

Sayers’ plating operation is subject to an Oakland Circuit Court civil suit brought by the city of Madison Heights. The litigation seeks to have him ordered to demolish and safely dispose of three 1950-circa buildings, which includes the building linked to the I-696 leak, along East 10 Mile where 5,000 canisters of various liquid and solid waste were discovered — or permit the city to do the work. A civil trial is to begin Jan. 13.

Late next week, the EPA will begin dozens of soil borings to help determine the extent and levels of contamination, EGLE said.

Electro-Plating Services is responsible for the contaminated liquid that migrated offsite onto the Interstate 696 freeway shoulder last week, according to the state. The Dec. 20 spill of contaminated fluid onto I-696 prompted a multi-agency response to contain the liquid.

Soil tests on the highway embankment where the yellow-green liquid appeared on the shoulder showed multiple heavy metals and other contaminants at levels below the threshold for direct human contact, EGLE said.

Regulators continue to work on the site daily during the holiday weeks, including the following activities:

  • Daily vacuuming of nearby catch basins
  • Maintenance and inspection of sump pumps collecting contaminated water from both inside the facility and on the highway embankment
  • Daily monitoring of air in the building using hand-held monitors
  • Preparing for the impact of rain and freezing weather

Macomb County Public Works Director Candice Miller described the toxic waste linked to the business as “life-threatening and terrifying.”

“The ‘green ooze’ that was spotted on I-696 a week ago may have been a blessing in disguise as it led to the revelation of an incredibly dangerous situation at this abandoned business,” Miller said. “The photos published this week truly tell the story.

“The current conditions in that business — conditions after a $1.5 million EPA-led cleanup — tells me that guidelines on how such cleanups are conducted are inadequate,” she said. “The bare minimum was done on this cleanup.”

Miller called for the building to be razed and for surrounding soil to be tested and excavated, saying last week's incident “has shown that deadly chemicals from this site can leach out and have the potential of making their way all the way to Lake St. Clair and thereby entering our drinking water supply."

“While this site is not in Macomb County, this site clearly demands an immediate response from all appropriate authorities until it is no longer a danger to our community and to our magnificent Great Lakes,” Miller said. “It must be cleaned up now. This situation must be aggressively addressed, unlike the initial Superfund cleanup.”

Oakland County Executive David Coulter also called for additional testing and other action to address contamination at the site. 

“I am working closely with other elected representatives to ensure city leaders in Madison Heights are getting what they need from state and federal agencies, including comprehensive soil testing to determine the scope and size of the contamination and a long-term plan for full remediation," he said. "We are all committed to protecting the health and safety of our residents.”

Madison Heights wants Judge Hala Jarbou to declare Sayers’ properties a nuisance and order him to remediate contamination; demolish the buildings or repair them at his own expense in a timely and proper fashion. If he refuses or neglects to comply with such an order, the city wants the right to demolish them.

At a financial evaluation judgment hearing on Sept. 11, Jarbou found the city was entitled to $225,000 in damages, none of which has been paid.

Attorneys for the city and Sayers did not return repeated telephone calls Friday from The News, but court records, including pretrial summaries, underscore how city, state and federal agencies have long sought action against Sayers’ businesses along E. 10 Mile for what was described as “industrial hoarding.”

The Madison Heights lawsuit lists numerous actions taken by federal, state and local agencies regarding the site: 

Between 1996 and 2015, at least 15 compliance actions were taken against Electro-Plating, including criminal enforcement by the EPA.

  • In April 2010, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality issued a consent order against Sayers after seven letters warning of violations by Electro-Plating between October 2006 and June 2008.
  • The Madison Heights fire department filed a complaint with the MDEQ in May 2016, alleging mismanagement of hazardous materials, hazardous waste, liquids and solid waste.
  • Officials estimated as many as 5,000 “containers, vats, totes and barrels brimming with hazardous waste including cyanide, chromium, nickel, chloride, trichloroethylene, and various acids and bases” were stored in the unsecured, crumbling buildings. Some containers were found open, corroded, leaking, unlabeled and stored in unlawful proximity to each other.
  • Manufacturing operations were shut down “over imminent and substantial danger to the public health.” 
  • The EPA was required to spend $1.5 million over a 10-month period to remove and dispose of waste from water leaching into the building and into the ground and the city’s sanity sewer system.

The three buildings were all closed by the MDEQ in December 2016, yet Sayers continued to operate them, moving equipment and corrosive waste between the structures without authority or permission from the city, according to a pretrial statement from the city.

In Sayers' defense, attorney James T. Sullivan wrote in pretrial statements that all three buildings, built in the 1950s, were steel-reinforced, structurally sound and repairable. Sullivan also contended the city had barred his client from making repairs and discouraged other potential purchasers from buying or using the property for other purposes.

In a Nov. 18, filing, Sayers asserted the EPA had removed chemicals and materials which the city claimed presented environmental concerns. The company also said Sayers had been barred from making repairs and the city had discouraged others from buying or using the property for other purposes.

Sayers’ ideas for safeguarding the property have been questioned as “attempting to shore up buildings on an ad hoc basis without permits, inspections or approval from the city," according to the suit.

An earthen pit in one of the buildings was found to contain greenish-colored water and high levels of chromium, according to the suit. That area was later covered with a layer of crushed concrete, the suit says.


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