Tag: green ooze

Groundwater and Green Ooze

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor

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.

The Case of the Green Ooze

Green liquid oozing from a retaining wall along I-696 on Dec. 20, 2019. Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Transportation

By Dave Dempsey

It’s disappointing that it took creeping green ooze to awaken state officials in Lansing to a monumental environmental problem — thousands of hazardous groundwater contamination sites across the state. But that’s exactly what has happened.

When a stream of green liquid began to flow onto a metro Detroit freeway in December 2019, alarm bells clanged. It soon turned out that the ooze contained, among other contaminants, hexavalent chromium, which is associated with cancer, as well as kidney and liver damage. Fortunately, homes and businesses in the area have municipal drinking water supplies instead of private wells, so the immediate health impact on people has been minimal.

The now-defunct Madison Heights electro-plating facility believed responsible for the ooze had 5,000 containers of haphazardly stored toxic waste when government inspectors arrived in 2016. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) conducted a $1.5 million emergency cleanup but did not address contaminated soils under the building. That’s the source of the I-696 ooze.

Although the owner of the company reported last week for a one-year prison term, state officials missed the opportunity to deal with the mess before it became a crisis when they failed to take decisive enforcement action against the firm after inspections found major problems beginning in 1996. Instead, they wrote letters and notices of violation for 20 years. Now another expensive cleanup is underway.

The green ooze is a symbol of a much bigger problem — thousands of groundwater contamination sites across the state where little or no cleanup has taken place. Many of these sites do threaten drinking water supplies or direct contact hazards — and there is little public money available to clean them up.

Until 1995, state policy dictated the full cleanup of contaminated groundwater in most instances, and from 1990 to 1995 state law also assigned strict liability for owners of contaminated sites. But the Michigan Legislature dramatically weakened both protections, allowing contaminants to be contained rather than cleaned up in many instances, and making it much more difficult to hold polluters accountable for the costs of cleanup. The public has been burdened with much of that cost.

A state that likes to think of itself as “Pure Michigan” has a far-from-pure groundwater resource, even though 45% of the state’s population gets its drinking water from wells. This intolerable condition cannot continue.

Responding to negative headlines over the green ooze, Governor Whitmer last week called for the restoration of Michigan’s polluter pay law and other actions to address the problem of lingering groundwater contamination. But the Legislature is in no hurry to comply.

It’s unclear how many messes it will take before policymakers wake up. But their action can’t wait. Had a fire broken out at the Madison Heights facility, and firefighters who responded sprayed water on the blaze, it might have resulted in an explosion like one that killed 173 people, including 104 firefighters, in China in 2015.

The antidote to green ooze is better business stewardship, tougher environmental enforcement, and a polluter pay law. It’s time for Michigan to get its groundwater act together.

Dave Dempsey is FLOW’s senior policy adviser.

Dave Dempsey, Senior Advisor