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Cleanup efforts continue on I-696 as water undergoes testing

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published January 9, 2020

Photo by Deb Jacques

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MADISON HEIGHTS — Details continue to emerge about the effort to clean up the leak of contaminated groundwater on Interstate 696, as well as the cleanup at the condemned factory from which it came. Officials also continue to provide reassurances that the drinking water is safe and that additional testing is being done to reaffirm this.

The groundwater made headlines the weekend before Christmas, Dec. 20, when bright green water spurted out of the freeway wall east of the Couzens Avenue offramp in Madison Heights. The water was laced with hexavalent chromium — also known as chromium-6, a toxin known to cause liver and kidney failure, cancer and other ailments. Other contaminants that appeared in preliminary testing included cyanide, trichloroethylene and other metals.

The waste had seeped into the ground from the basement of Electro-Plating Services, 945 E. 10 Mile Road, where countless barrels of hazardous waste had been illegally hoarded by the owner, Gary Sayers, who was convicted in November and reported to federal prison this month to start his one-year sentence. Sayers had been present at the site following the incident to help authorities access the property. EPS itself was shut down by state regulators in 2016, and the federal Environmental Protection Agency spent around $1.5 million cleaning up the building. Now it’s clear that the contamination traveled below the building, leaching into the groundwater.   

In addition to the EPA, the leak has prompted an emergency response from the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE, as well as the Michigan Department of Transportation, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, the Michigan State Police, Oakland County Emergency Management, and the city of Madison Heights. And while the site is in Oakland County, Macomb County Public Works is also involved, since anything that enters the storm drains on I-696 can ultimately reach Lake St. Clair.  

At press time, around 11,000 gallons of contaminated water had been drained from the site, collected via two sump pumps — one in the hand-dug pit in the factory’s basement, 10 feet by 10 feet and 5 feet deep, where Sayers had dumped hazardous waste; and another pump at the point where the liquid seeped onto I-696, apparently through a seam in the sand or a utility conduit pipe embedded in the clay soils, which created a pathway for the contaminated groundwater. Some of the water that mixed with the chemicals in the pit appears to have been rainwater that filtered through the building’s dilapidated roof.

The sump pumps are draining the liquid into storage tanks, and at press time, the collected liquid — along with soil samples at the site — was being tested to identify the full range of contaminants, which in turn will determine the scope of remediation for the next phase, since different chemicals may spread underground in different ways depending on their makeup. Twenty-five wells had also been drilled for testing. Officials said the results would likely arrive the week of Jan. 15.

This being said, all cities in the area source their water from sealed municipal sources, and not wells that could be contaminated. Officials say that the chances of the area’s drinking water being compromised are practically nonexistent. Yet they are still testing the water quality for contaminants, “out of an abundance of caution,” said Jill Greenberg, the public information officer for EGLE.

“We want to make sure everyone feels comfortable that they can drink their water and wash their hands,” she said. “While we’re already confident of that, we’re still going to do this additional testing to make sure everyone feels safe. And once we get the samples back, that will push us into a new phase of remediation, understanding where and how to remove the remaining contaminants.”

Authorities are also investigating the extent of the spread of the chemicals beyond the site. The storm sewers around EPS and on I-696 carry stormwater into Bear Creek, the Red Run Drain, the Clinton River and eventually Lake St. Clair. It is unknown how much contamination may have entered the storm sewer before the leak was discovered and controlled, but given the large volume of water that enters the sewer system, EGLE believes the contaminants would be below detectable levels once the sewers reach local waterways. Nonetheless, authorities are concerned about the potential impact this pollution could have on the environment.

Greenberg said hexavalent chromium is most dangerous if touched directly. The only place where it’s known to have appeared is the point of leakage on I-696, which MDOT cordoned off. Otherwise, it appears to be at some depth underground. Thus, it poses no risk to air quality or residential gardens, according to EGLE. As for basement sump pumps, which collect and remove groundwater from around the foundation of a building, it appears the contaminated groundwater leaving the EPS site is flowing to the north and seeping out at the highway.   

The thousands of gallons of liquid that have already been pumped out of the site by the EPA’s sump pumps are reducing the pressure that pushes the liquid toward the highway, helping to contain the liquid. Nearby catch basins are also being vacuumed daily. The EPA and EGLE have been taking extra precautions to prevent heavy rains and freezing weather from causing additional problems with contaminated runoff.

As the person responsible for the mess, Sayers is liable for any cleanup costs, according to Greenberg. However, if he is unable or unwilling to pay, the full cost will be borne by the taxpayers of Michigan. At press time, authorities were evaluating whether additional legal action will be taken against Sayers.

Roslyn Grafstein, the mayor pro tem of Madison Heights, has visited the site multiple times to speak with EPA subcontractors regarding sump pumps, soil borings, and issues posed by rainfall. She has also been in touch with state and county officials.

“There are three basic questions: Why did this happen, what happens next, and what assurances do we have that our water and air and soil are safe?” Grafstein said. “The city is not in a financial situation to be able to pay for this cleanup by itself, so we’ll need assistance from other levels of government in order to get this situation resolved. We want a complete cleanup here. My No. 1 concern is keeping everyone safe.”

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