Green Ooze Cleanup Illustrates Flawed Groundwater Policy

Recent news that a final cleanup has begun to remove the infamous green ooze that leaked onto a Detroit area freeway in December 2019 is a reminder that Michigan policy still fosters many sites where toxic contamination remains in groundwater.

The policy has drawn little attention, but it is a serious problem for Michigan. FLOW’s recent groundwater report, Deep Threats to Our Sixth Great Lake, spotlights its implications, and calls for a change in state law to protect our groundwater and public health. Click here for the report’s Key Facts sheet.

In December 2019, drivers noticed a mysterious green substance seeping onto the shoulder of I-696 in Madison Heights. Environmental investigators quickly identified the source of what the news media called “green ooze.” It was the inevitable result of state policies that have treated Michigan’s groundwater, in some locations, as an essentially worthless resource. The source of the green ooze, which contained the toxic chemicals hexavalent chromium, trichloroethylene (TCE), cyanide, and perfluorooctanoic substances, or PFAS, was the former Electro-Plating Services business located beside the freeway. Cited in numerous state and federal enforcement actions for sloppy handling of toxic waste, Electro-Plating Services filed for bankruptcy.

Improper waste management allowed the chemicals to seep into the ground below the facility and eventually exited onto I-696. Records revealed that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, now the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (U.S. EPA) had warned the business to comply with hazardous waste regulations since 2010, but the facility didn’t shut down for another six years. More immediate enforcement action might have prevented some of the groundwater contamination.

Initially, government agencies dealt primarily with containers of waste at the facility. But the chemical wastes had penetrated the soil and reached groundwater. By January 2021, state and federal agencies had spent $4.1 million on cleanup. The company’s owner paid a different kind of price, a one-year jail sentence for criminal violations and restitution of $1.4 million. Unfortunately, the green ooze site is far from unique.

“As visually dramatic as this is, it really draws attention to the fact that there are thousands and thousands of sites across the state where soil and groundwater is contaminated,” Tracy Kecskemeti, EGLE district supervisor said, “and we only have the resources to address a small number.”

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