ST. LOUIS, MI — For years, funding to clean up Michigan’s worst contaminated sites came in spurts as federal authorities tried to spread annual appropriations over a universe of toxic sites across the country.
The result has been slow cleanups in places so polluted they warrant the special scrutiny that comes with a place on the National Priorities List (NPL) – an inglorious distinction known more commonly as the Superfund List.
But repair efforts are set to ramp up at multiple sites in Michigan and beyond this year, as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) targets a backlog of projects with a surge of $1 billion in funding for the new bipartisan Infrastructure Act – which included $3.5 billion for the Superfund as well as a provision reinstating a tax on chemicals that will help provide a stable revenue stream for cleanups .
“We are very happy with these two new sources of money – not just for ourselves, of course, but because there are so many sites across the country that have just been blocked due to a lack of ‘money,” Jane Keon said. , who as secretary of the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force fought the EPA for years to secure funding for the former Velsicol Chemical Corp. plant. and its toxic ramifications in Saint-Louis.
“It’s high time to clean up these old sites,” Keon said.
In Michigan, the EPA says four Michigan sites are getting attention this year thanks to infrastructure funding. The sites are among 49 across the country who were waiting for funding before beginning new or more robust cleanup work, according to federal officials.
In St. Clair Shores, more than 40 residential yards and some commercial properties contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) from the Ten Mile Drain storm sewer system, which empties into the lake. St. Clair, will be searched.
In Mancelona, more than 220,000 tonnes of tar and contaminated soil will be excavated from a 4-acre dry pond that was used as an ironwork dump prior to World War II. Groundwater will be treated with special wells that inject microbes to help biodegrade contaminants.
In Charlevoix, toxic vapor extraction systems will be installed on several downtown buildings and in residential neighborhoods to address a long-standing risk of gas from contaminated soil under large parts of the city.
In Saint Louis, an old burnt where Velsicol dumped toxic waste and ash from its former chemical plant across the river will receive underground heat treatments and nine nearby homes will be hooked up to the municipal water system.
“This is the biggest investment in cleaning up Superfund sites that we’ve seen in a long, long time,” said Debra Shore, who in October was appointed administrator for EPA Region 5, which encompasses Michigan. “And the fact that he will replenish the trust fund means that the work can continue; that it will not run out of funding over time.
Shore called the return of an excise tax on chemicals “a tremendous boost for people who have done all the good work over the years.” The tax, which previously included the oil industry, was the origin of the name “Superfund”. It expired in 1995 and was not renewed by Congress. In the absence of this revenue, the pace of cleanups in the United States has slowed and huge repair costs have been passed on to taxpayers, who have been responsible for “orphan” sites where a polluter has gone bankrupt or otherwise escaped. to any liability.
When the list began in 1980, Michigan originally had 85 Superfund sites. By 2003, when federal program funding dried up, that list had been reduced by 15. Since then, seven sites have been removed from the list, the most recent being the Duell & Gardner landfill in the county of Muskegon, removed in 2019, and Barrels Inc. Lansing site, removed in 2021.
Cleaning up such sites is not cheap. According to an annual state report, the average cost of Superfund remedies nationwide is about $30 million, and the Michigan cleanup cost range reaches $210 million for Velsicol’s “national mega-site.”
Chemicals revenue reporting is expected to generate approximately $14.5 billion in program revenue over the next decade, according to to the Congressional Budget Office. Shore anticipates a surge in hiring under the EPA’s Superfund program and a “dramatic acceleration” of work at some sites.
Due to historical land use and demographic patterns, many Superfund sites are located near or within low-income or minority communities. Shore said about 60% of sites receiving new infrastructure funding are in these overburdened communities.
“The replenishment of the trust fund will be key because then that means the commitment is there with determination and with continued support,” Shore said.
In Michigan, the state pays a 10% match on cleanup funding and must cover ongoing operations and maintenance work at federal Superfund sites, but the billion-dollar infrastructure bill n there is no matching requirement.
“It’s going to save the state a lot of money at some of these sites,” said David Kline, who leads the Superfund program in the Department of Environment, Great Britain’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division. Michigan Lakes and Energy (EGLE).
Kline said the EPA has traditionally tried not to let an NPL site go more than three years without some level of cleanup funding, but that always meant waiting years between periodic work.
“It’s very frustrating to work on a site and get to the point where you’re ready to do a cleanup and you don’t have the money to do it,” Kline said.
The new tax revenue “should really get things going for the next decade.”
In St. Louis, the new funds will help build an access road and pay for other preparations for the Velsicol Burning Pit, which is located in a no-go area at Hidden Oaks Golf Course. The EPA has requested easement rights for access to the site, which will require utility connections to power the cleanup remedy; an “in situ” treatment system that will heat the ground and vaporize buried pollutants such as DDT, benzene derivatives and other toxic remains.
A similar system is used across the river on parts of the former mill site footprint. Thermal heating began there in 2018 and approximately 382,000 pounds of contaminants have been removed to date. This equipment will move to the burn pit, where chemicals from the plant site were dumped years ago. The heater should last about a year.
“It’s a bit like sticking a big electric furnace in the ground,” said EPA site director Tom Alcamo. Once vaporized, the contaminants are captured and treated.
Cleanup of the burn pit would cost about $25 million, Alcamo said. This is the last major source area of Velsicol that needs remediation, although the overall completion of the works remains several years away. An additional 100,000 tons of contaminated material from the plant site is marked for excavation, and the EPA is considering a long-term water treatment plant for the site.
There are also downstream contaminants to deal with in the sediments, floodplains and soils along the banks of the Pine River. The EPA plans to come up with a cleanup plan this spring that will encompass the river up to the confluence with the Chippewa River near Midland.
“We are looking at some remedies, from excavation to containment,” Alcamo said. “It’s mainly an ecological risk downstream because of DDT. So, we are not looking at these aggressive in situ heat treatment type remedies. It’s like digging up floodplains and taking those materials offsite for disposal.
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