Madison Heights says ooze site owner 'was living there'

Mike Martindale
The Detroit News

Pontiac — A Bloomfield Hills man whose business is being blamed for a green ooze that came out of the ground near Interstate 696 last month frequently spent the night in his condemned buildings, which contained debris and toxic waste, over the past three years, according to testimony Thursday in Oakland County Circuit Court.

Tim Gardner, a building department official with the city of Madison Heights, said during a civil trial that property owner Gary Sayers was often spotted by police and fire inspectors on the site, punching out building walls with a forklift and moving equipment from one structure to another.

Four members of Michigan's congressional delegation have asked the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for more help cleaning up green ooze

“He had been spotted there at various hours inside overnighting it or sleeping in his vehicles — he was living there,” said Jeffrey Sherman, an attorney for the city.

City officials were unsure specifically what buildings Sayers lived inside but all three had been condemned and lacked heat or water, except for rain, which collected up to two inches deep in one building, due to holes in the roof and broken windows.

James Sullivan, Sayers’ attorney, declined to comment on where his client may have lived over the past three years.

In cross examination of Gardner, Sullivan said Sayers was never told what specific problems needed to be corrected in the buildings and implied city officials were unfairly “piling” on him with citations and cleanup orders without providing him direction on what to do.

Gardner said Sayers had been treated fairly by the city and that he had held off ticketing him. When asked by Sullivan if he had been lenient with his tickets, Gardner said, “I could have written hundreds.”

When asked what he would have told Sayers had to be repaired in the buildings, Gardner responded: “Everything.”

The city sued Sayers, seeking a court order to make him demolish the structures or pay for the city to do so, with Judge Hala Jarbou hearing testimony in a civil trial that started Monday.

When the three buildings, which occupy about a half-acre, were condemned three years ago, Sayers was told he had three options: “vacate, repair or demolish” them, Gardner testified Thursday. Sayers did not pursue any of the options, officials said.

Sayers is serving a one-year federal prison sentence after pleading guilty to illegal handling of hazardous waste at his defunct Electro Plating Services and two other buildings along E. Ten Mile. He also been ordered to pay back more than $1.4 million spent by the Environmental Protection Agency to clean up contamination on the property.

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.

Gardner said he estimated the needed repairs to the buildings would exceed their state equalized valuation “and not make much sense.”

According to testimony from Gardner and a former building official, Frank Haywood, Sayers had been told more than once that the buildings were unsafe for occupancy — commercial or residential — and during lawsuit facilitation negotiations in late November, was given two days to remove any personal belongings inspectors found inside and stay off the property. 

The worst of the buildings, Electro Plating Services, had 5,000 leaking canisters overflowing with various chemicals into two earthen pits filled with a greenish liquid in the basement, containing high levels of chromium, cyanide and other hazardous waste.

State and federal officials believe thousands of gallons of waste seeped into the soil and groundwater and eventually made its way north a couple of hundred feet along I-696 on Dec. 20, prompting the closure of one lane and an exit.

Since then, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy and the U.S. EPA have vacuumed thousands of gallons of waste from the pits for safe disposal off site. Other Sayers properties, on Commonwealth Street in Detroit and outside Metro Detroit, are being reviewed for possible contaminants.

Officials in Macomb County are monitoring cleanup efforts at the Madison Heights site and have expressed concern that Sayers’ disposal strategy involved a pipe leading into the sewer system that eventually flowed into several creeks and Lake St. Clair.

The extent of the pollution from the Madison Heights site, once considered stabilized by state and federal efforts, is still to be determined with soil borings being done outside the property.

In hearings before Lansing lawmakers on Tuesday, Oakland County Executive David Coulter said much work is pending, including:

--Testing of soil and ground water in ever expanding circles around the electro-plating facility until the results come back negative, identifying the furthest reaches of the contamination.

--Continued testing of storm water that runs into Bear Creek, which flows into the Clinton River and eventually to Lake St. Clair.

--Continued testing of the storm drain for I-696 that runs directly to the St. Clair River.

 Additional testing and disposal costs are expected to rise into the millions of dollars, and an EPA Superfund assessment is planned.

At least a half-dozen more witnesses are scheduled to testify in the Oakland County trial, which will continue next Thursday. Sayers has not been in court and will not testify, Sullivan said Thursday.

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