LANSING – Environmental groups are fighting with U.S. Environmental Protection
Agency (EPA) over what will happen to Michigan’s most polluted sites after
federal funds to clean them up have run out.
The Public Interest Research Group in Michigan warns that taxpayers rather than polluters will have to pay for the cleanups in Gratiot, Berrien, Houghton and Kent counties. It also says cleanups will be slowed down or not completed unless other environmental programs are sacrificed.
But EPA says that environmentalists are exaggerating and that no change is expected in either money or the number of cleanups.
Congress created the so-called Superfund in 1980 to locate, investigate and clean up the most polluted sites nationwide. It was originally paid for partly by federal taxes, and partly by a tax on oil and chemical industries that was abandoned in 1995.
Since then, polluters’ share slowly decreased until the fund ran out of money at the end of September. The Superfund is now paid for almost exclusively by federal revenue.
“The Superfund tax was never the only source of money,” said Mick Hans of the EPA’s Midwest region. “I don’t anticipate much of anything changing.”
Hans said he sees no reason for the public to worry about cleanup of 14 Michigan Superfund sites that are on the National Priority List and still in the process of completion.
“We don’t think any of them are in any danger. Hypothetically, it may take a few years longer to get done, but it would get done, and immediate threats have been cleaned up,” Hans said.
It typically takes seven to 10 years to clean up a Superfund site, but some take longer.
About 90 percent of Superfund site cleanups in the Midwest are paid for by polluters, who have signed a contract to pay for pollution they caused. This is compared with 70 percent nationwide.
“Our ability to go after potentially responsible parties is still the same,” Hans said, noting that the law allowing the EPA to require companies to either clean up pollution or to pay EPA three times the cost is still in effect.
Fifteen of the 81 Michigan sites previously on the priority list have been cleaned up, including the Mason County Landfill and the Ossineke Ground Water Contamination in Alpena County. Fifty-two other sites require only after-cleanup monitoring.
Ten of the 14 sites remaining to be cleaned up are being paid for by the responsible parties. Among those where cleanup is incomplete are sites in Allegan, Antrim, Branch, Ingham and Livingston counties.
But that doesn’t keep environmental groups like the Sierra Club from worrying about four sites that are to be paid for by the Superfund.
The four are Aircraft Components in Berrien County, Torch Lake in Houghton County, Spartan Chemical in Kent County and Velsicol Chemical Corp. in Gratiot County, where previous attempts to contain contamination have failed.
A clay cap and a barrier between the 54-acre Velsicol plant site and the Pine River were built in 1985 to contain the pollution, but the barrier has proven inadequate.
“Supposedly, this contamination was contained, but it’s leaking all sorts of chemicals. It will cost tens of millions of dollars to do the cleanups that need to be done,” said Rita Jack, a conservation program coordinator with the Sierra Club.
She said an extra $60 million to $100 million would probably be required to finish the site. Meanwhile, people are advised not to eat fish from the river because of potential health risks.
Pine River community involvement coordinator Stuart Hill rejects the possibility that the EPA could have done better. Sometimes you take false steps, but there’s essentially nothing wrong with the cap itself. It’s [the barrier]. Capping rivers is an evolving science, and we’re second-guessing with today’s technology the technology of 20-30 years ago. Decisions made at the site were under the best information available at the time.”
Hill said the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is investigating to come up with a new plan. However, because Velsicol reached a settlement with the EPA and the state, the company won’t have to pay any future costs.
The Sierra Club’s Jack said, “I want to see the site completely cleaned up and the responsible party paying. Thirty years from now, who knows how much money we’ll have. We were told by the EPA that funding for the site is secure, but it’s almost certainly provided because it’s high on the priority list of the EPA.”
According to the EPA, the site is scheduled to receive $10 million in funds in fiscal year 2004, and about $6 million to $8 million for each year from 2005 through 2008.
Ed Hopkins, director of Sierra Club’s environmental quality program, said so far, Congress has funded the Superfund with only slightly less money than before the pollution tax was abandoned.
But in the future, this is likely to be at the expense of other programs, he said.“Other water-quality programs are going to suffer now that the money for environmental programs is going into the Superfund.”
“The rate of cleanups is slowing down because of the uncertainty of where the money is going to come from. And the EPA is actively exploring whether to change their listing procedure to reduce the number of sites on the list because what’s the point of putting a site on the list when there’s no money for cleanup? This lack of certainty will affect new sites.”
This might affect two sites proposed for the priority list: Bay City Middle Grounds in Bay County and the Wurtsmith Air Force Base in Iosco County.
Although interim measures have been taken to prevent further leaks from the Velsicol site, Jack said her group is concerned with the effects that the pollution may have on area residents because toxic chemicals are still leaking into the ground water.
Hill said completion of the cleanup along the river was originally planned for 2004, but has been delayed until 2006. The plant itself will not be cleaned up until 2008.
© 2003, Capital News Service, Michigan State University
School of Journalism
© 2003, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism