Green ooze photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT)
By Dave Dempsey
When a mysterious green slime crept onto the shoulder of I-696 in Madison Heights last year, it shouldn’t have been a surprise at all. Instead, it was the inevitable result of state policies since 1995 that have treated Michigan’s groundwater as an essentially worthless resource. And Michigan residents have been paying both in tax dollars and health risks ever since.
The source of the Madison Heights green ooze, which contained toxic hexavalent chromium and TCE, was the former Electro-Plating Services business beside the freeway, according to the State of Michigan. The subject of numerous state and federal enforcement actions for sloppy handling of toxic waste, Electro-Plating Services had gone into bankruptcy. The state found that improper waste management allowed the chemicals to seep into the ground below the facility and eventually exit onto I-696.
The owner of the Madison Heights building linked to the green ooze has reportedly started to clean up his Detroit property after months of pressure from city and state officials.
Had this occurred between 1990 and 1995, the company would have been required to clean up the soils and/or install a barrier to keep the contaminants within them from migrating off-site. But the 1995 changes to state law created categories of “use-based” cleanups. If the party responsible for the mess could show the property’s groundwater would not be a drinking water source, the contaminants could remain. But groundwater is not static. It moves.
Groundwater is not the drinking water source for most of southeast Michigan; the region gets most of its drinking water from Lake Huron and the Detroit River. But leaving toxic chemicals in place assumes groundwater will never again be a drinking water source. Found in many locations around the state, volatile organic chemicals in soils and groundwater can also vaporize through basement floors and into occupied buildings, threatening human health.
The Electro-Plating Services contamination will be costly to the taxpayer. In March of this year, a state legislative committee approved $600,000 in taxpayer funds to clean up the site and demolish the building. The full cost of the cleanup may exceed $1 million. The company’s owner paid a different kind of price, a one-year jail sentence for criminal violations and restitution of $1.4 million.
The green ooze site is farm from unique. “As visually dramatic as this it, 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, district supervisor for Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy said, “and we only have the resources to address a small number.”
Michigan can and must do better. It must identify funding to clean up those thousands of sites, and to compel private parties responsible for groundwater contamination to carry the weight of cleanup. But the state must also change policies that allow groundwater pollution to remain in place – and then to move, endangering the environment and human health.