Here’s what you need to know about the toxic ooze found in Madison Heights | Michigan Radio
WUOMFM

Here’s what you need to know about the toxic ooze found in Madison Heights

Jan 14, 2020

On December 20, a neon green slime was discovered leaking onto I-696 in Madison Heights. 

Soon after the leak was discovered, officials realized it was coming from a closed business called Electro-Plating Services.

In November, the former owner of that company, Gary Sayers, was sentenced to a year of federal prison after he violated hazardous waste storage laws for more than two decades. Electro-Plating Services had been closed since 2016.

The clean-up is underway and officials say there are no immediate health concerns or drinking water contamination. But the contamination continues to spread, and there are still a lot of questions surrounding the incident.

What is the ooze?

The green ooze technically wasn’t Nickelodeon Kids’ Choice Awards-level “ooze.” It was actually groundwater contaminated by industrial waste. Preliminary testing by the Environmental Protection Agency shows that the contaminants include hexavalent chromium, cyanide, trichloroethylene, and other metals.

A photo of the pit in the EPS basement before the 2017 emergency clean-up.
Credit U.S. EPA

The source of the contamination is Electro-Plating Services (EPS). Open from 1967 to 2016, it is now a decrepit factory with a basement contaminated with highly toxic materials, including hexavalent chromium, which is a known carcinogen.

Gary Sayers had for decades been improperly disposing of the chemicals and metals used in the electroplating process. Instead of sending the waste materials to a licensed disposal facility, Sayers opted to store waste in drums on-site, as well as in a shallow pit dug into the basement of the property. The hazardous waste built up over the years, slowly leeching into the ground.

The spill occurred when rainwater fell through the broken roof of the facility, flooding the basement and spreading the chemicals.

Despite the hazardous nature of the waste, tests show that it has not contaminated drinking water. It is still unclear how much leaked into nearby storm sewers near EPS and I-696, which feed into Lake St. Clair, Bear Creek, the Red Run Drain, and the Clinton River.

Did EGLE or EPA know about this site?

Sayers received multiple warnings about the storage issues from state and federal officials before the state environmental department issued a cease and desist order in 2016.

Electro-Plating Services in Madison Heights had a history of violating environmental regulations.
Credit U.S. EPA

The U.S. EPA labeled EPS as a Superfund site in 2017, and began an emergency clean-up process. According to EGLE, that cleanup “addressed the immediate hazards on the site but was not intended to address all environmental impacts.”

After that clean-up, however, it was determined that the site had no threat to drinking water, and was denied full Superfund status. That determination is now being reevaluated. The Superfund program is run by the EPA, and is responsible for cleaning up thousands of hazardous, toxic sites throughout Michigan and the country.

EGLE says that the site has a “history of repeated violations of environmental laws,” but it is still unclear what the department knew about the site, when violations were discovered, and what was done before the 2016 cease and desist.

This week, EGLE announced that the Detroit Fire Department discovered potentially hazardous liquids in the basement of a second property owned by Sayers.

In a statement Monday, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer blamed the incomplete remediation on a lack of state government support for the environment department.

“This situation demonstrates the need for broad reforms to address problems of critical underfunding and understaffing at the department following eight years of one-party control in Lansing. It’s time for Republicans in the legislature to ensure EGLE has the technology and resources it needs to keep the public safe."

What are the next steps?

The clean-up of the main EPS site is still ongoing. The Michigan Department of Transportation is working to reopen the lane of I-696 that was contaminated, and has surrounded the immediate source of the spill with absorbent foam to prevent further spread.

EGLE staff taking samples from the contamination site.
Credit EGLE

Meanwhile, the EPA continues to pump toxic green water out of the EPS basement, which was previously filled with gravel after the 2017 emergency clean-up. Despite those pumps, the contamination is still spreading. Tracy Kecszemeti is the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy's district supervisor of materials management. She says the EPA is now digging an interceptor trench on the service drive of I-696 to try to funnel the contaminated water away from the stormwater sewer and collect it for proper disposal.

A permanent clean-up plan is expected to be issued this week.

Electro-Plating Services is being solely blamed for the contamination. Gary Sayers was sentenced to one year of federal prison and fined nearly $1.5 million in November. That fine may now increase, and Gov. Whitmer has called for additional charges against Sayers.

The City of Madison Heights has filed a civil suit against Sayers for a demolition order. Federal and state officials say EPS needs to be demolished in order to remove all of the contaminated soil.

Want to support reporting like this? Consider making a gift to Michigan Radio today.