Civil trial begins for businessman believed responsible for green 'ooze'

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — A civil trial involving a Bloomfield Hills man believe responsible for toxic green “ooze” seeping out on Interstate 696 in Madison Heights last month began Monday with a city attorney repeating how Gary Sayers failed to clean up his property for more than 20 years.

The bench trial is before Oakland Circuit Judge Hala Jarbou with the city asking that Sayers be ordered to demolish three condemned buildings along East 10 Mile or permit the city to do the work and bill Sayers. Contaminants from the property began seeping out of the ground on the shoulder of Interstate 696 in Madison Heights on Dec. 20.

Sayers was not present Monday because he began serving a one-year federal prison sentence last week after pleading guilty to illegal handling of hazardous waste at his Electro-Plating Services business and other properties. He has been ordered to repay a $1.5 million cleanup done by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Madison Heights city attorney Jeffrey Sherman has argued the contamination of the buildings and condition of the Sayers’ property “constitutes a public health hazard, any further delay is prejudicial to the City and its thousands of residents.”

Contractors from Tetra Tech Engineering services company use a drill to get soil samples to detect contamination near the facility where the green ooze was seeping out and onto the shoulder of I-696 in Madison Heights.

“The defendant will argue that no injuries have occurred there but it doesn’t mean the city should wait for that to happen,” Sherman said.

Sayers’ attorney, James Sullivan, had earlier requested an adjournment, claiming his client's absence would "unfairly prejudice" Sayers' ability to defend himself. The city disputed the claiming noting how the Michigan Court of Appeals has ruled “there is no requirement that a defendant in a civil case appear at trial” and Sayers and companies are represented by a “very able attorney” at the bench trial to be held before Jarbou.

State and federal investigators reported finding a bright green liquid in two basement pits containing water contaminated with hexavalent chromium (a known cancer-causing agent), cyanide, trichloroethylene (a degreasing agent) and other materials, all hazardous chemicals used in the defendants’ prior business, according to the city’s lawsuit.

More than 20,000 gallons of known contaminated liquid have been recovered from the pits, including 5,000 containers leaking on the property and into groundwater; according to investigators.

Sayers dug a 10-foot by 10-foot by five-foot deep pit into clay beneath the building’s basement, which collected industrial waste, rainwater from the building’s leaking roof and groundwater that seeped under the building, according to the city.

That hazardous liquid was thought to have been eliminated and safely disposed of during a Superfund cleanup that included filling in the pits with broken concrete and gravel.

The city's lawsuit alleged that while in operation, Sayers' businesses pumped liquid from the pit into a treatment system and then into the sanitary sewer, causing damage to the city’s sanitary sewer main.

“Over time, the clay walls and floor of the pit became contaminated with the chemicals used in the plating operation," the lawsuit said. "As groundwater seeps in and out of the pit, it carries the contamination away from the building."

The city reported the shoulder of the I-696 freeway (east of the Couzens offramp) was closed to prevent people from driving through and spreading the liquid.

Storm sewers around the building and on I-696 carry stormwater into Bear Creek, the Red Run Drain, the Clinton River and eventually into Lake St. Clair.

“Any pollution or contaminant entering this system ends up in state’s lakes and rivers,” Sherman told Jarbou on Monday.

Testimony on Monday referenced how amidst rusty and leaking containers of chemicals, a cut metal drum was found over a pipe connected to a sanitary sewer line.

Federal and state investigators have not yet determined how much contamination may have entered the storm sewer before the leaking from the basement was discovered. The EPA installed sump pumps in the basement and highway embankment and additional groundwater samplings and soil borings are ongoing.

Renewed efforts involved “nearby catch basins being vacuumed daily,” the city reported to Jarbou. “Luckily all nearby residents and businesses are on municipal water from the Great Lakes Water Authority and the groundwater in this area is not used for drinking, cooking or bathing. Further, no air quality hazards have been identified.”

The bench trial is expected to take up to three days, Jarbou said Monday. An estimated 14 witnesses are expected to testify.

In a related matter, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy reported Monday that over the weekend EGLE investigated potentially hazardous chemicals, also similar in green in color, were discovered in three basement pits at a Detroit property owned by Sayers at 5900 Commonwealth.

EGLE said the liquids must still be tested to determine appropriate disposal. The agency stressed the area is served by municipal water and several miles from municipal intakes in the Detroit River.

Once those pits are emptied EGLE said it will be in a better position to determine if they have leaked materials into the environment and future steps, if needed.

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