Thirty years before toxic green ooze spilled onto a Madison Heights road, the state's Pollution Emergency Alerting System hotline received a complaint about chemical storage pits dug into the basement of Electro-Plating Services (EPS).
For three years, it appears the state took no action. Then, in 1993, another complaint was made to the hotline. This time, the state investigated.
What followed were 23 years of failed state efforts to force the owner of EPS, Gary Sayers, to follow the law.
The state issued 15 violation notices against Sayers, EPS, and a third Sayers property over the years; inspected his properties nine times; took him to court twice – all while Sayers continued doing the same thing, over and over.
Storing hazardous materials in unlabeled and open containers. Illegally transporting them to his warehouse in Detroit to store them. Dumping hazardous materials into that pit he’d dug in the basement, which became saturated with toxic chemicals.
Sean Hammond is policy director for the Michigan Environmental Council. In a statement, Hammond says:
"This timeline highlights the major deficiencies in our current enforcement of environmental laws. It took over a dozen violations to move to a cease and desist order, and up until the EPA's $1.5 million restitution order total fines appear to be less than $15,000 since the state was first informed of this site in 1990. Repeat violations must rise to a cease and desist prior to a site looking like EPS does now. We also need to begin to require better financial assurance on companies that put public health and natural resources at risk, so that taxpayers are not footing the bill for remediation and clean-up."
Dave Dempsey, senior advisor for FLOW (For Love of Water) said it was "a classic case of the futility of pursuing 'voluntary compliance' with bad actors."
In testimony before the Michigan House Appropriations Committee earlier this week, EGLE Director Liesl Clark agreed. She said the state had "pulled its punches" too often and for too long.
"If you go into that building today, and you hear stories about the state of the property in 2017 when EPA and our team initiated a major cleanup, it's hard to imagine how that property was allowed to get and remain that way. It's really hard to believe that more red flags shouldn't have been raised sooner and more frequently since we first learned of the existence of the sordid pit where Gary Sayers deposited chemicals illegally.
Clark told the committee that she cannot guarantee that there will not be another situation like Electro-Plating Services. She says there are thousands of polluted sites around the state, and the best her agency can do is pay attention to the ones that present the greatest threat. On the good news side, the new state budget will allow EGLE to hire 100 additional employees.
Clark says because the agency's record keeping system is so antiquated, employees had to go through mountains of files in order to compile a "three-foot" high stack of records relating to Electro-Plating Services' offenses over the years. She says she'll be asking for funding to invest in a modern IT system.
And she promises a "top to bottom" review of EGLE's processes and culture, utilizing an outside third-party contractor.
Michigan Radio received a chronology of events put together by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy on Thursday.
The first violation notice against Sayers and EPS came in 1996. The citations in that notice included failure to properly label containers accumulating hazardous waste, failure to comply with hazardous waste accumulation and storage requirements, and failure to close hazardous waste/liquid industrial waste containers.
Sayers was taken to court in 2005 after it was discovered that he had been improperly storing hazardous waste at his Detroit property. In November 2005, he accepted a plea agreement that required him to properly dispose of all of that material by March 1, 2006. He didn't meet the agreement's obligations until June 2007.
Meanwhile, the EPS Madison Heights property continued to rack up violation notices. Finally, in May 2016, the City of Madison Heights revoked occupancy for EPS due to fire code and ordinance violations.
In December, 2016, the U.S. EPA was summoned to the property. Shortly afterwards, the agency began a nearly one-year-long "time critical removal action" at EPS, testing, relabeling and hauling out 5,000 containers of toxic chemicals.
In January 2017, the state environment department (EGLE) issued EPS a cease and desist order.
Meanwhile, federal prosecutors took Gary Sayers to court on criminal charges. He was sentenced to one year of prison and a $1.5 million fine in November 2019. He is serving time in a minimum security prison in West Virginia.
The City of Madison Heights is currently suing Sayers for a demolition order of the EPS property. The trial in that case is expected to wrap up within two weeks. Attorneys for the city say it makes no sense to allow the buildings to remain standing, because it would cost far more than they are worth to repair them.
Click through the timeline below:
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