Tricia Edwards, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Tracy Kecskemeti, from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, were among the speakers at a town hall meeting on the Interstate 696 contamination incident at Madison High School Feb. 3.

Tricia Edwards, from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and Tracy Kecskemeti, from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, were among the speakers at a town hall meeting on the Interstate 696 contamination incident at Madison High School Feb. 3.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes


Town hall on I-696 contamination addresses issue of water quality

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published February 7, 2020

 One slide during the presentation showed the travel path of the contaminants from the basement of Electro-Plating Services to I-696.

One slide during the presentation showed the travel path of the contaminants from the basement of Electro-Plating Services to I-696.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

 The attendees in the nearly packed auditorium were able to submit questions on cards that were then answered by the experts. A recurring concern was the safety of the area’s drinking water.

The attendees in the nearly packed auditorium were able to submit questions on cards that were then answered by the experts. A recurring concern was the safety of the area’s drinking water.

Photo by Patricia O’Blenes

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MADISON HEIGHTS — Turnout was high for a town hall meeting on the Interstate 696 contamination incident, held Feb. 3 in the auditorium at Madison High School. A recurring concern among those in attendance was whether the drinking water is safe.  

The event, organized by the city of Madison Heights in collaboration with Oakland County and the state and federal agencies cleaning up the mess, provided insight into the science behind the reassurances that, yes, the drinking water is safe.

According to Tracy Kecskemeti — the southeast Michigan district coordinator for the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, or EGLE — sampling shows the contamination levels in the water moving downstream from Electro-Plating Services are negligible. Among the industrial chemicals being checked for are hexavalent chromium, also called chromium-6, which gave the gusher on I-696 its sickly green hue. Others include TCE, cyanide and PFAS.

“We have samples from Bear Creek. It represents your worst case surface water sample since it’s closest to the site, and in the smallest stream. … The criteria for chromium-6 is 100 parts per billion and the results we got ranged from 0.09 to 0.3 part per billion — less than 1 part per billion, so less than 1/100th per billion,” Kecskemeti said.

She noted that in addition to testing done by EGLE, the city of Madison Heights has sampled other locations, and tests have also been conducted at intakes by the Great Lakes Water Authority, Wyandotte and Grosse Pointe Farms. They all came back with similar results.

Contaminated groundwater won’t directly affect the area’s drinking water supply, anyways, since the drinking water is routed through sealed municipal systems rather than drawn from wells. Kecskemeti says the infrastructure is virtually foolproof in this regard.  

“It’s just really unlikely the contamination would seep into your water pipes. These pipes are made out of cast iron and they are under pressure. Water pipes in the ground are not particularly vulnerable to contamination,” Kecskemeti said.

And what about when it reaches Lake St. Clair, where the water is sourced?

“We have not sampled out in the lake — it would literally be like a needle in a haystack; I could go take one scoop of water out of Lake St. Clair and it really wouldn’t tell us much — but we’ve done some modeling,” Kecskemeti said. “We know the concentrations that are leaving the facility; we have assumed the worst case scenarios and run all of the calculations; and the engineers tell me that by the time these contaminants hit the lake, they would be more than 200 times less than our most stringent water quality standards. So while none of this is to say the pollution entering the lake is OK, or that any of us are comfortable with it, it’s still not expected to hit the lake in any concentration that would impact our water quality.”


Remediation, prevention
At press time, more than 63,000 gallons of contaminated groundwater had been collected at the site by way of three sump pumps: one in the basement of Electro-Plating Services, where the owner Gary Sayers — currently serving a one-year federal prison term for his illegal waste handling — dumped his chemicals; another at the wall on I-696 near Couzens Avenue where the gusher was first spotted Dec. 20; and a third sump pump in an interceptor trench dug near the facility.

This waste is tested for contaminants and then hauled off to a licensed disposal facility where it will be solidified and sealed in a maximum security landfill. Authorities have also been checking for vapor intrusion in the area, where contaminants evaporate in the soil and rise up as gas, sampling air at a neighboring business. One silver lining to the whole situation is that the pollution’s source at the top of the hill caused it to flow down to the highway, which not only acted as a barrier between it and populated areas, but also revealed its presence when it emerged onto the road.

The concern now is the limited state funding and manpower afforded to hazardous waste sites. To fully remediate the site, Electro-Plating Services will need to be torn down and the hill excavated. This will either be done on Sayers’ dime or, if he is unable to pay, at the taxpayers’ expense.

“Here in southeast Michigan, we have about 9,000 contaminated properties across Wayne, Oakland, Macomb and St. Clair counties. Our (state) remediation staff is able to work on about 10% of those. We’ve got maybe 60 sites right now that are being addressed under state-funded cleanup, and our remediating staff works with about 700 other sites where the responsible party is doing the cleanup, but that is out of 9,000 sites,” Kecskemeti said. “With the resources and staff we have, I just want to put in perspective this site was joining those ranks.”

State regulators shut down Electro-Plating Services in 2016, following the discovery of countless chemical barrels being hoarded there. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency spent 2017 cleaning up the “immediate hazard,” which included chemicals in the building that could’ve formed a toxic plume if they combined with water, and that posed combustible fire hazards as well.

But the EPA’s cleanup wasn’t intended to remediate the site. That work was left to the state. Since the local drinking water supply is through a municipal system, the site was given lower priority. And for the same reason, it did not meet the EPA’s status for a national Superfund site.   

At the town hall, elected officials at all levels of government spoke about the need for change.

“I am outraged that we’re sitting here in 2020 and we don’t have tens of places like Electro-Plating Services, we don’t have hundreds, we have thousands,” said U.S. Rep. Andy Levin, D-Bloomfield Township. “And it’s just really, in a weird way, a blessing that this facility sits in an industrial area right next to an expressway that’s below grade, so that we even found out with this famous green ooze coming out right on the expressway. How many industrial facilities are there that don’t happen to have their water going out in a way that the whole public will see it? And yet things like chromium-6 are going down into the ground. For the sake of our kids and grandkids, we’ve got to do better.

“So what I’m looking for at the federal level is a couple of things,” Levin continued. “One, we’ve got to fully fund the Environmental Protection Agency’s cleanup operations if we expect to be able to go after these corporate polluters. … Secondly, I’m particularity outraged that we have situations just like Electro-Plating Services where someone polluted the one precious Earth we have, for decades, and now they’re out of resources, they’re bankrupt, and who’s left holding the bag? The taxpayers. We’ve got to pass reforms so that polluters pay. And we have a bill — the state needs to work on it, but at the federal level, we have a bill put in … called the Superfund Polluters Pay Act, so that the polluters pay a tax when they have these toxic chemicals, so even if someone like this goes bankrupt, the taxpayers are not left holding the bag.”

Oakland County Executive David Coulter pledged his support to the cleanup.

“There are (thousands) of other sites across the state — dozens in Oakland County — and one of the most disturbing things I heard while I was in Lansing … is that if you tried to pour these kinds of resources into every (contaminated site) monitoring and remediating them, we don’t have people and we don’t have enough money. Well, we better find the resources, because this is critical — there is nothing more important,” Coulter said. “I’ve promised the mayor and council here that the county will provide whatever resources are needed to tear that building down, because we’re not going to let the demolition delay the cleanup.”

Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash said that protecting the water supply is paramount.

“These kinds of sites are not rare. Unfortunately, with the budgets we’re given for our state programs, they’ve been having to treat these more like a triage for emergency medicine, where you do the most important things first, and then hold off on the ones that are less impactful,” he said. “Unfortunately, these kind of things catch up to you later, so the more money we have in our budgets, the more people we have doing this work, the less we’ll have these sorts of things springing on us.”

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