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.