Toxic contamination usually gets this dramatic only in Hollywood.
In the week before Christmas 2019, commuters on I-696 in Madison Heights were startled by a fluorescent green chemical ooze weeping from a concrete retaining wall along an earthen embankment, the substance puddling on the freeway’s shoulder.
Tests later showed the ooze laden with hexavalent chromium, prolonged exposures to which can cause nasal and sinus cancers, kidney and liver damage. The source was obvious, straight up the embankment from the oozing site: Electro-Plating Services, a struggling chrome plating business long on the radar of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency for its hazardous waste mismanagement.
The I-696 green ooze was an extreme, highly visual example of a more chronic, largely invisible problem across Michigan. The state has more than 24,000 known contaminated sites — some minor spills, others as major as Electro-Plating Services. At most locations, state regulators know only what the property owners and their hired environmental consultants have told them. And those landowner assessments filed with the state are voluntary, not a requirement.
Michigan environmental law assigns responsibility for contamination not to the owners of the land, but to those who caused the pollution, however long ago, provided current property owners take some protective steps. Some 14,000 of the state’s contaminated sites have no responsible party that can be identified — either it’s unclear who caused it or those responsible no longer are around. That means the sites will fall to EGLE or the EPA — taxpayers — to deal with as needed. And that number isn’t likely to get reduced much anytime soon. Of those 14,000 sites, EGLE this year funded remediation activities at about 450.
“We don’t know how many contaminated sites are out there, and what shape they are in,” said Sean Hammond, policy director at the Lansing-based nonprofit Michigan Environmental Council.
Reviews of backlogged sites consistently show up to 10% pose “immediate public health risks,” he said. That likely means there are such sites, currently posing threats to health or the environment, that are in EGLE’s queue but not yet vetted, or that are completely unknown to state regulators.
“Not only do we not have the money to clean them up, we don’t have the money or necessary staffing to be sure which sites they are,” Hammond said.
EGLE officials are keenly aware of the agency’s limitations.
“Statewide, people sometimes have an idea that we have all of these answers, that we have all of these resources — that if there’s a site of contamination, we’re all over it, even if it’s minor. And that’s not really the case,” EGLE spokesman Hugh McDiarmid Jr. said.
EGLE officials also can’t point the Free Press to where all the sites are.