State finds elevated PFAS levels at 'green ooze' site

Madison Heights — State officials investigating a yellow-green chemical oozing from a shuttered industrial site said Friday they found elevated levels of the PFAS "forever chemical" there.

Investigators found per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances in contaminated water collected by a sump pump in the basement of the former Electro-Plating Services facility where owner Gary Sayers had illegally stored chemicals for decades. PFAS has been associated with health risks such as thyroid disease, increased cholesterol levels and kidney and testicular cancers.

A green liquid seeps out of wall along the shoulder of the eastbound lanes of I-696 just west of Couzens Ave. in Madison Heights on Dec. 20, 2019.

The water sampled from the basement put contained levels of PFOS — one of the PFAS compounds — at a level of 742 parts per trillion. Michigan's groundwater standard is 70 parts per trillion — a level some have argued is too permissive.

"The presence of PFAS means that EGLE will take additional steps to ensure that the recovered water is properly treated to remove the compounds — as well as other contaminants in the water — before it is disposed of," Jill Greenberg, a spokeswoman for the state's Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, said in a statement.

PFAS substances are popularly used to create nonstick surfaces for products such as firefighting foam, Scotchgard, Teflon and food wrappers.

State personnel also are sampling six storm sewer locations and Bear Creek, where the sewer system becomes surface water for PFAS contamination.

A sample from Bear Creek last week showed hexavalent chromium levels at 4 parts per billion, below the water quality standard of 11 parts per billion. The investigators, however, had not tested for PFAS.

State officials from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy also were en route Friday night to another former industrial site owned by Sayers in Detroit. It was not immediately clear if that site also would be tested for PFAS.

State officials emphasized that PFAS is not a concern for drinking water intakes in Lake St. Clair. Six rounds of drinking water intake testing in 2019 showed either no detection of the chemicals or very low levels. All results were below the federal Environmental Protection Agency's advisory level and below Michigan's proposed new drinking water standards.

Next week, the lane of eastbound Interstate 696 that was closed last month because of the ooze may reopen, officials added. 

"The lane of I-696 closed for work on the contamination will reopen early next week as officials start an innovative workaround to keep the chemicals out of the sewer and begin scrutinizing newly available soil and groundwater tests from around the facility," Greenberg said.

The freeway's lane could open at the Couzens exit as soon as Monday, weather permitting. However, the ramp at Couzens and the service drive will remain closed indefinitely.

State regulators also are launching a new, formal preliminary assessment of the Electro-Plating Services site for possible inclusion in the federal Environmental Protection Agency’s Superfund program. The federal program is responsible for cleaning up contaminated land and responding to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters.

Officials said Friday they intend to have a new site assessment completed this spring, using data from dozens of soil and water test samples being collected and analyzed by EPA and EGLE, according to Greenberg.

A 2019 assessment concluded there was a low risk for the site’s contaminated soil and water to move offsite.

On Dec. 20, motorists spotted the ooze seeping from a wall on eastbound I-696; the Electro-Plating Services, shuttered by the state in December 2016, is right above the site of the ooze. 

Crews began cleaning up the liquid and it sparked a probe by state officials.

Earlier this week, the 70-year-old owner of Electro-Plating Services reported to federal prison in West Virginia to serve a 2016 sentence for illegal handling of hazardous waste. He also has been ordered to repay the federal government $1.5 million for the Environmental Protection Agency's initial 2017 cleanup of the site.