Lawmakers ask EPA to help clean up toxic green ooze

Enviros renew call for ‘polluter pay’ law

Green ooze on I-696 in Madison Heights |MDOT photo

As the state continues its investigation into toxic green ooze found gushing on to a metro Detroit freeway last month, a group of lawmakers are seeking federal help, as well. 

The toxic chemicals were found oozing onto a stretch of I-696 in Madison Heights just before Christmas. They come from a nearby industrial plating facility owned by businessman Gary Sayers, who is now serving a federal prison sentence due to charges of illegal handling of hazardous waste.

EPA Director Andrew Wheeler at Belle Isle announcement | Ken Coleman

In a letter sent Thursday to Andrew Wheeler, administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), U.S. Sens. Gary Peters (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Debbie Stabenow (D-Lansing), as well as U.S. Reps. Andy Levin (D-Bloomfield Twp.) and Paul Mitchell (R-Dryden), seek “additional assistance” from the EPA to help with remediating the “unprecedented” contamination. 

“While we recognize the significant number of contaminated sites across the state and the nation, EPA regional response staff have characterized the level of hazardous waste mismanagement by EPS Owner Gary Sayers as ‘unprecedented,'” the lawmakers wrote in their letter. 

“EPA’s mission is to protect human health and the environment, and ensuring Michigander’s [sic] access to clean and safe air and water is our shared priority,” the lawmakers continued. “Unfortunately, we in Michigan know too well the consequences of government inaction when it comes to protecting drinking water.”

Michigan has faced no shortage of environmental crises in recent years, from PFAS to the Flint to the ongoing fight over the Line 5 oil pipeline under the Straits of Mackinac. 

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But the green slime — which consists of contaminants such as hexavalent chromium, cyanide, trichloroethylene and other metals — appears to serve as a visceral reminder of the state’s challenges. Environmental justice advocates have used adjectives like “remarkable,” “tragic” and “spectacular” to describe the substance. 

It’s unclear what if any federal assistance may come to Michigan in light of the Madison Heights incident. But in the meantime, the state’s top environmental regulatory body, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), continues to lead its own investigation that could stretch weeks or months, according to spokesman Hugh McDiarmid. 

EGLE has been tasked by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to conduct an investigation of Sayers’ Madison Heights property, as well as others he owns. Depending on the results of that investigation, McDiarmid said EGLE could then work with the attorney general’s office to bring further criminal charges. 

So far, McDiarmid said, the Madison Heights property is the only one that has produced contamination. And the contamination that has been found there is beyond the pale, he said. 

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“Our folks who are on the ground and have done this for years say this site is unique in how bad it is,” McDiarmid said, acknowledging that Michigan has lots of contaminated sites that require remediation. 

“So there are tons of sites with contamination that haven’t been fully addressed in the state. That’s a dialogue that hopefully, this situation will help spur in the coming year. Are there sites like the Madison Heights site lying out there? I suspect not to this degree. There are lots of sites, not many like Gary Sayers’ sites.”

At this time, EGLE says there’s no impact on drinking water or air quality from the green ooze. It’s unclear how much of that might wind up in rivers and lakes, which are fed from stormwater drains in the area. 

Lisa Wozniak, executive director of the Michigan League of Conservation Voters, said the incident in Madison Heights should send a “clear and stark wakeup call” to state and federal regulators, as well as to lawmakers. 

“From my perspective, this is a wakeup call for our state Legislature to say to the people of Michigan, ‘what the federal government will not do, we will to ensure the health and safety of our citizens,'” Wozniak said in an interview on Thursday. 

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She pushed for the Legislature to act quickly in taking up legislation introduced last year in both the state House and Senate that would require those responsible for pollution to pay for the cleanup, as opposed to taxpayers currently picking up the bill when business owners lack the needed resources. 

Michigan used to have such “polluter pay” laws on the books, but they were largely gutted in the 1990s during the Republican former Gov. John Engler era. 

Neither of the bills to renew the law has received a hearing in the GOP-controlled Legislature. 

A message seeking comment with a GOP Senate spokeswoman was not immediately returned. House Speaker Lee Chatfield (R-Levering), through a spokesman, declined to weigh in on the matter, pending a committee vote. 

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State Sen. Jeff Irwin | Ken Coleman

State Sen. Jeff Irwin (D-Ann Arbor), a bill sponsor, told the Advance he’s been having conversations with committee chairs about hearings. He’s hopeful that the green ooze incident serves as a visceral reminder of the myriad environmental issues facing Michigan.

“There are real environmental challenges all over the state and very few of them are as spectacular as the green ooze,” Irwin said, noting that other issues also demand attention. 

“But that doesn’t mean they’re not giving people cancer. That doesn’t mean people aren’t being hurt by this pollution. The fear I have is that the green ooze will retreat from the headlines, [Sayers] will be carted off to jail,” Irwin continued. “As much as can be done to clean up the situation as possible will be done, and people will move on and not continue the fight to get the real win we need for public health here in Michigan, which is to strengthen our laws, hold people accountable, prevent future pollution.”