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State DEQ at first murky on number of vapor evacuees

Michael Gerstein
The Detroit News

Lansing — A state environmental official initially was vague about the number of people relocated from a Detroit site for exposure to toxic fumes, claiming “several” people were vacated from the preschool center.

Potentially cancerous vapors from buried toxic wastes prompted the evactuation of at least 279 people in three Michigan cities from May 2017 through August 2017, according to the state.

The lack of specifics prompted The Detroit News to request, under the Freedom of Information Act, the details on all evacuations from sites around Michigan. The document request revealed that nearly 280 people in three cities were evacuated or relocated for exposure to potentially cancerous fumes, including more than 220 from the former Vistas Nuevas Head Start location in Detroit in October 2016.

The common thread in Detroit, Grand Rapids and Sturgis are long-abandoned industrial or commercial sites that have caused health concerns in their surrounding areas. The documents and subsequent interviews have brought the issues into sharper focus.

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■When The News first inquired about the evacuation of the preschool site run by Matrix Human Services, DEQ district supervisor Paul Owens said in February 2017 “several” people had abandoned the building. DEQ documents showed 224 people many of whom were preschool-age children — were barred from the facility.

When asked about the discrepancy, a DEQ spokeswoman said, “Several certainly indicates a large number.”

Owens did not return calls or an email seeking clarification.

The former Lincoln Brass Works factory contaminated the Corktown neighborhood site with metal-working solvents before closing in 1993.

Since 1997, Matrix had used the building at 2051 Rosa Parks for 19 years, including for administrative offices, before the Detroit Health Department ordered the building closed.

The Detroit Health Department said in a statement there was no evacuation at the child care building but a shutdown of the facility. Based on a 24-hour air sample, concentrations of toxic vapors “were generally lower in the tenants’ area which included the child care facility,” the health department said.

Lincoln Brass Works is in talks with the state about whether to demolish or clean up the site, according to the DEQ. The surrounding property was not polluted enough to warrant state action, the state said.

The DEQ has since said it ordered another evacuation in Detroit in August 2017 at the Midwest Memorials building on the city’s northwest side near the former Detrex facility. The DEQ said at least three people or more were vacated.

The property’s owner, Trex LLC, found vapors from solvents such as trichloroethylene or TCE floated into a nearby building after the DEQ required the company to investigate. After the Midwest Memorials building was evacuated, an air filter was installed, the DEQ said.

■Thirty-five people in Grand Rapids were evacuated from seven properties. But a former worker at one location has argued that exposure led to health problems and a death -- something the state contests.

Workers at an urban renewal nonprofit called Seeds of Promise were among those evacuated.

Ken Steensma, who worked at Seeds of Promise, argues that exposure to airborne perchlorethylene may have contributed to a co-worker’s death, although it’s nearly impossible to prove.

Floyd Willis, the nonprofit’s former treasurer, died Aug. 4, 2016, at the age of 64 due to a pulmonary obstruction, according to the Kent County Medical Examiner’s office.

Willis did much of the renovation in a portion of the building with holes in the floor where toxic vapors from the basement filtered upstairs, Steensma said.

No autopsy was ever performed on Willis, and his daughter declined to talk to The Detroit News.

The DEQ rejects claims that vapor exposure led to health problems.

“Ken’s raised a lot of concerns about this project, and we don’t necessarily agree with the same set of facts that Ken has presented,” said David Bandlow, a DEQ staffer who was involved in the Grand Rapids evacuations.

When asked about whether TCE vapors caused Willis’ death, Bandlow said: “I do not know if that’s true. Making that link would be very hard, I think, to do.”

Other evacuated properties included a former solvent retailer and recycler on Ellsworth Avenue, Bandlow said. A site on Hall Street was contaminated by an old dry cleaner, and another near Leonard Street NW was contaminated by a leaky underground storage tank beneath a gas station, he said.

■In southwest Michigan community of Sturgis, 17 people were evacuated from three homes between October 2016 and February 2017 until the indoor air was cleaned up, but six homeowners didn’t let the cleanup company inside.

Air sampled at38 homes did not contain TCE levels high enough to prompt an evacuation, according to DEQ documents.

The source of the problem was the former Kirsch Co. manufacturing plant, which used a degreasing agent that leached the now-banned solvent TCE into the soil and underground city water in the 1980s. It prompted the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to list the site on its National Priorities or Superfund List by 1984.

TCE was even discovered in infant formula produced by the nearby Ross Labs in 1983, but not at high enough levels to order a recall, according to a report 10 years later from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. The same 1993 report noted the potential risk of toxic vapors from the pollution wafting into people’s homes.

But it would take another 23 years until anyone disclosed the vapor problem to dozens of families living near the plume in a poor area of Sturgis.

When the state evacuates properties or homes in the future, “I would like there to be a little bit higher flag raised to alert people in the area, if not in the region, about this type of thing,” said state Rep. Aaron Miller, R-Sturgis.

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