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Transportation & Infrastructure

January I-94 wreck may be an environmental threat

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(photo by Steve Carmody/Michigan Radio)
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An accident scene on I-94

The remains of a January car wreck that left one person dead and others seriously injured on Interstate-94 may still pose environmental concerns.

The nearly 200-vehicle pileup included dozens of tankers hauling toxic materials ranging from 40,000 pounds of fireworks to 44,600 pounds of formic acid – a corrosive and a severe inhalation hazard.

Mark Ducharme is an incident manager at Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. He remembers the accident as “the largest multi-vehicle collision that Michigan has had on an interstate.”  

While the companies responsible for the spilled materials have paid to have the site cleaned, environmental experts fear the enduring effects of these leaked toxins. Ducharme is one of them. He explained that the initial clean-up effort was a “Band-Aid approach.”

Workers removed much of the acid, neutralizing the material by covering it with sand. When they revisited the accident in recent months, they found lingering formic acid from the original 800-gallon spill.

“A more recent cleanup was conducted six weeks ago and what we found was that the formic acid had spread into the underlying soil a fairly significant distance. And it also migrated to a gravity-relief drain on the median and into a ditch north of the highway," Ducharme explains.

The trouble comes in finding a means of removing the acid without doing significant structural damage to the interstate. Ducharme’s department is working in concert with the Department of Transportation toward a solution. Further testing is currently underway to examine if the formic acid has leaked into the ground water.

However, Ducharme says considering the size and scope of the incident, their initial mitigation efforts were ultimately successful. “It went very well. Great communication and collaboration among all responders. I think all the people that worked on it did a phenomenal job. And it doesn’t always work that way.”