Delayed toxic cleanup puts public at
Money is drying up; 15,000 polluted areas in Michigan
By Brad Heath
The Detroit News
Published August 9th, 2004
The bank accounts that pay for cleaning thousands of
toxic dumps and cast-off factories across Michigan are
nearly empty, raising fears that needed cleanups soon
will be delayed, scaled back or scrapped altogether.
Most of that work is the responsibility of the federal
Superfund and a patchwork of state cleanup programs. But
Superfund money has dropped by a third over the past decade
and its account is empty. Michigan’s programs are expected
to be bankrupt within four years, even though more than
15,000 old landfills, leaking underground tanks and other
polluted sites still need cleaning.
Without more money to finish the job, officials warn,
the sites will remain a public health risk and a barrier
to economic development.
Federal auditors already blame limited funding for delaying
work at a handful of Superfund sites around the country.
And this year, Gov. Jennifer Granholm’s administration
said scarce state cleanup money will keep Michigan from
tackling any new cleanup projects. Meanwhile, lawmakers
in Washington and Lansing are considering higher fees
to keep the cleanups going.
“The bottom line is things aren’t getting done,” said
James Clift, legislative director for the Michigan Environmental
Council. “At some point, cleanups will just grind to a
That’s the last thing Murray Borrello wants to see happen.
But he’s worried that Superfund cuts will keep the government
from thoroughly removing the DDT and other toxins in the
soil at the Velsicol Chemical Corp. plant in St. Louis,
The plant is one of the nation’s largest Superfund sites,
laced with cancer-causing chemicals and other waste that’s
still seeping out. The state has banned eating any fish
“We’re afraid the government’s going to come and say
we know how bad the problem is and how to clean it up,
but here’s what we’re going to settle for because of the
funding,” said Borrello, a college professor who lives
in nearby Alma. “Money is always a factor.”
Officials already have tried sealing off the plant, only
to find toxins still leaking. Now they’re spending a decade
and as much as $100 million to dredge the contaminated
Pine River. But Borrello and other neighbors worry that
if the government can’t spend enough to properly clean
the Velsicol Chemical Corp. dumping grounds, all that
work will be wasted.
“It’s a serious situation,” he said. “The result is that
some sites that need to get cleaned up won’t and some
places that pose a risk aren’t even being identified.”
State officials don’t disagree. The state Department
of Environmental Quality now says it only has enough money
left to manage cleanup projects that have begun, and even
that won’t last long.
“In a very short time frame, we’re going to run out of
money,” said Robert Nowinski, the chief of administration
in the DEQ division responsible for cleanup work.
Federal officials acknowledge Superfund — stretched by
two decades of expanding cleanup demands — also doesn’t
have enough money to go around. But that has more to do
with a glut of expensive construction projects than its
now-drained trust fund, said Thomas P. Dunne, the assistant
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator in
charge of the Superfund.
“There’s no doubt we need more money,” Dunne said. “As
far as we’re concerned, where the money comes from doesn’t
make any difference.”
It’s unclear exactly how much of a danger those sites
pose to people’s health or the environment. But studies
have found continued health risks from toxins around dozens
of Superfund sites. And experts fear many state sites
are leaching toxins into the Great Lakes and other waterways.
Still, the financial pinch is getting tighter as costs
rise and funding shrinks.
That situation is not likely to improve. Managers of
the state and federal programs acknowledge they now must
contend with more costly cleanup work than in the past.
Costs go up because the earliest phases of a project —
studying the problem and designing a way to fix it — are
usually far less expensive than the dredging, digging
or building involved in the actual cleanup.
And they’re still finding new sites in need of work.
Now environmentalists and some state and federal lawmakers
are seeking to extend or even raise the fuel and industrial
taxes that paid for the cleanups.
State must do most cleanups
Most cleanups in Michigan are the state’s responsibility.
Only a handful of the biggest, most-contaminated projects
have been turned over to Washington.
For years, Michigan has leaned heavily on borrowed money
to pay for the work — most recently through the $675 million
Clean Michigan Initiative bonds voters approved in 1998.
But that money is nearly exhausted. After this year, officials
estimate they’ll have only $35.7 million that’s not spoken
They’ll have nothing left by 2008.
“It’s a balancing act. We have less money but we have
more work to do,” DEQ spokesman Robert McCann said. “Obviously,
there are a lot of projects out there we’ve got to clean
up, but we don’t have the money to do it.”
The state already is scaling back. Granholm’s budget
proposal for next year bars funding for almost all new
cleanup projects, unless one presents a public health
emergency. Ongoing projects will still be paid for.
Officials say they’re still piecing together a complete
list of the cleanups they won’t be able to start.
But experts say it’s a long one: A report last year by
the Michigan Environmental Council found 1,600 old landfills,
9,000 leaking underground tanks and more than 5,000 other
sites still in need of cleanups. Many are near residential
neighborhoods in Metro Detroit and other parts of the
One of the worst, critics say, is a chemical dump in
Riverview believed to be leaking mercury and other toxins
into the Detroit River. The buried chemicals were unearthed
in 1979, but still haven’t been removed. Hundreds of other
sites are dotted across Metro Detroit.
The state’s cleanup bill will top $2.7 billion.
Superfund also running low
Experts say the Superfund’s financial pinch is almost
The program — the nation’s chief tool for cleaning up
its worst toxic messes — was created in 1980 after the
discovery of 20,000 tons of toxic waste prompted an evacuation
around Love Canal in upstate New York. Today, it supervises
— and often pays for — cleanups at more than 1,200 sites
But the taxes on businesses, chemicals and crude oil
that fed Superfund’s bank account were halted in 1995.
That “trust fund” was depleted this year. And while Congress
has found other ways to pay for much of the work, Superfund
has still weathered an inflation-adjusted 35 percent funding
drop since 1993, according to the U.S. General Accounting
Office, Congress’ investigative arm.
The EPA’s inspector general warned in January that the
Superfund had $175 million less than it needed last year,
forcing cleanups at 29 sites to be delayed or scaled back.
That meant fewer homes were tested for lead around a smelter
in Omaha, Neb. and planning was delayed for removing asbestos
contamination from the soil near Libby, Mont.
Dunne said none of the delays has put people at risk.
“Frankly, we don’t have any sites sitting out there where
there’s an imminent danger. What the (Inspector General)
said is we don’t have enough money, and I don’t disagree
with that,” he said. “We’re spending the money as prudently
as we can, trying to spread it out so we can undertake
as much as possible.”
“If you have to make compromises about cleanups, we believe
that’s not good for public health,” said Danielle Solomon,
the Superfund policy director for the Natural Resources
So far, auditors said none of the 67 Michigan sites on
the Superfund cleanup list were affected. The list includes
a Rochester Hills landfill contaminated by carcinogens
and 10 other Metro Detroit sites.
Superfund taxes opposed
To keep that from happening, environmentalists and some
lawmakers have urged Washington to reinstate the Superfund
But manufacturers and other industries that would pay
most of the bill oppose such a plan, arguing it’s unfair
to single them out.
“We’re all going to benefit from a cleaner environment,”
said Darren McKinney, a spokesman for the National Association
of Manufacturers. “Our position is that taxes to clean
up the environment should come from everyone.”
And state lawmakers in Michigan are considering extending
a 7/8-cent fee on gas and other petroleum products. The
measure would give the DEQ an added $60 million a year
to spend on environmental cleanups.
But regulators say that still isn’t enough to cover the
state’s cleanup tab, and they’re still hunting for other
ways to pay for it all.
“We have two choices,” said Anne Woiwode, director of
the Sierra Club’s Michigan chapter. “We either walk away
from these sites or we find a way to clean them up.”
You can reach Brad Heath at (313) 222-2563 or email@example.com.