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Testing for dangerous chemicals to expand near federal superfund site in mid-Michigan

Tony Brown

Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy plans to test the soil from an abandoned rail bed near the former Velsicol Chemical Co. plant in St. Louis for hazardous chemicals.

The old rail bed lies just outside a federal superfund site on which the Environmental Protection Agency has spent more than $100 million cleaning up after Velsicol.

Ed Lorenz, the vice chair of the local task force that’s been working with the federal government, said the new testing is important, because the old rail bed runs right next to people’s homes and a city park.

“We’ve had a long history of being told that all the contaminants are on the plant site, and ‘don’t worry, we’re taking care of that,’ and in repeated cases, we found out, ‘oh, oh, actually, contaminants migrated out of the plant site,’” said Lorenz.

Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy will coordinate the testing. Spokesperson Jill Greenberg said the state did not yet have a clear timeline for when it will start.

Lorenz said he’d be thrilled if the tests found nothing, but the presence of dangerous chemicals at sites even further from the former manufacturing plant leads him to believe they’ll be under the nearby railroad bed too.

The air has remained contaminated, and birds near the plant were still being poisoned by pesticide products manufactured by Velsicol decades after the plant closed, and Lorenz said dangerous chemicals from the plant have been found in dozens of nearby yards.

“Saint Louis is like so much of the modern world,” said Lorenz. “We started doing something quickly, and it had all sorts of long-term problems, but in the short run, it made a lot of money for someone.”

“We happened, by bad luck, to be the site of a company that was really irresponsible,” he said.

Velsicol closed the St. Louis plant in 1978 and declared bankruptcy in 1982. The company is now headquartered in Rosemont, Ill., and did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Brett joined Michigan Radio in December 2021 as an editor.
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