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EPA conducts soil tests around site of "green ooze" spill

Sarah Cwiek
Michigan Radio

The U.S. EPA has begun drilling into the soil surrounding a shuttered factory in Oakland County in an effort to figure out just how much toxic chemicals left there have contaminated the surrounding area.

The former Electro-Plating Services facility in Madison Heights was responsible for the green ooze that seeped onto the shoulder of I-696 last month.

The EPA removed illegally-stored toxic waste from the building in 2017. But it left behind some chemicals the owner had stored in a basement pit.

State environmental officials didn’t think that posed a threat to drinking water, because the surrounding area is served by a municipal water system rather than wells. It was put on a long list of contaminated sites slated for eventual cleanup. But they also didn’t think chemicals would migrate offsite.

Now, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy’s Jill Greenberg says they’re trying to figure out how that happened—and where else they might have gone.

“We’re trying to determine a perimeter for which way the contaminants are going,” Greenberg said at the site on Thursday. “These samples will help us determine the subsurface water migration patterns.”

Greenberg says the soil borings will be tested, and the results will help determine EGLE’s long term remediation plan for the site.

Greenberg says the agency wants the testing expedited. “So we can figure out what kind of impact there is, what kind of long term solution we need to come up with; any potential impact on our waterways,” she said. “We want to know what levels those are.”

The embankment adjacent to the factory and alongside I-696 is heavily contaminated with hexavalent chromium—the “green ooze”—and multiple other chemicals. Greenberg said it’s possible some of that has seeped into the underground waterway that feeds Bear Creek, which empties into Lake St. Clair. Preliminary drinking water tests found no risk to drinking water intakes in Lake St. Clair, and slightly elevated levels in storm sewers that drain into the lake.

In the meantime, Greenberg says the EPA is using sump pumps to pull contaminated groundwater up out of the ground. She says EGLE isn’t yet exactly sure how the ooze traveled to the highway, but suspects that accumulating rain and groundwater pushed the chemicals in the basement pit outward and down the embankment.

The owner of Electro-Plating Services, Gary Sayers, is headed to prison after being convicted of illegally storing hazardous waste. Governor Gretchen Whitmer said this week that her administration is exploring possible further charges against him.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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