Official: Ooze site can’t be fully corrected until it's knocked down
Madison Heights — As the Environmental Protection Agency continues investigating a toxic leak from a shuttered chemical firm and the owner who caused it, officials say they cannot remedy the site fully until the building is demolished.
Workers have been focused on collecting samples and cleaning upthe embankment on the shoulder of Interstate 696 near Couzens, where green ooze seeped out before rush hour on Dec. 20.
Nearly 11,000 gallons of contaminated water have been collected from the former Electro-Plating Services building at 945 E. 10 Mile, a state department said on Friday. The chemical from the building’s basement moved underground and entered a storm sewer on eastbound I-696.
“The owner of the building has dug a pit that was 10-by-10-feet and 5 feet deep in the basement and he was just pouring his contaminants into this earthen hole,” said Jill Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy. “While it was flushed out over time, the contaminants still leached into the soil. There’s holes in the roof where water and snow got in, mixing in with the chemicals and found its way out.”
The liquid was identified by the EPA as groundwater contaminated with hexavalent chromium, a cancer-causing chemical used in textile dyes, wood preservation and ink.
The condemned building is being heavily guarded to prevent people from entering, with few EPA investigators allowed in at a time to limit exposure to the chemical, officials said.
“The structure is not safe. Inside, all the walls are covered with contaminants from the years that built up,” Greenberg said Saturday at the site. “Barrels were removed by the EPA in a time critical removal because of the imminent risk.
“To correct and remediate the site, the building needs to come down first.”
Greenberg explained that once pending litigation is finished, site owner Gary Sayers is responsible for cleanup and demolition costs. If he is unable to do so, the state will intervene. She said the EPA and EGLE are not in a position to tear down the building, but the agencies are doing what they can to handle the chemicals that leeched out.
"In theory, to get to the contamination below, the building would have to come down, but we're not doing that," she said. "It's really out of our hands. We're not there to tear it down. We're there to remediate it. That's our only goal."
Two sump wells were installed to collect the contaminated water just before Christmas. Had the embankment sump not been installed, the hazardous liquid would have entered the storm sewer, which leads to Lake St. Clair, Greenberg said.
“We know there’s contaminated water in the tank under the building to the highway because this is where the water migrated, so we’re still working on fixing that first,” she said. “They draw the water in, we pump it into a frac-tank (a portable bulk liquid storage tank) nearby.”
EPA contractors have drilled into 25 wells near the site for testing, which state officials said will help analysts evaluate the contamination.
Results are expected to be available in one or two weeks.
“We know the contaminant moved in a northeast pattern, and we want to establish a perimeter of where the groundwater is taking it, and that will help inform us where we go next for a long-term remediation plan,” Greenberg said.
The company was issued a cease-and-desist order in December 2016 after inspectors discovered an estimated 5,000 corroded drums, vats and other containers of hazardous waste at the site, according to the EPA.
A $2 million cleanup began in June 2017. Crews removed chemicals from the property but did not clean up soil or groundwater contamination. Sayers of Bloomfield Hills is expected to begin serving a one-year federal prison sentence this month for illegally storing hazardous waste at the site.
Sayers, who has been described as an "industrial hoarder," pleaded guilty to illegally storing hazardous waste without a permit. The city sued to order demolition of the buildings or be allowed to do the work if he doesn’t comply with a court order.
The site wasn’t immediately remedied then because it wasn’t listed as high priority and there were a lack of funds, Greenberg said.
“After the EPA turned the case over to EGLE, we graded it for the Superfund status. It fell short on the priority because there were no imminent risk with drinking water,” she said. “There’s over 8,000 sites on the list in the whole state and at the top of the list are the people whose lives are at imminent risk. Even right now at the site, there’s no imminent risk for drinking water.”
Drinking water in Madison Heights is considered safe by investigators since its from municipal sources, but to be cautious, they are testing with the city, she said.
Greenberg said the site has been visited by Rep. Andy Levin on Thursday and that Gov. Gretchen Whitmer is concerned about getting a bipartisan effort on allocating funding.