Three Michigan Superfund sites among backlog of unfunded polluted sites

St. Louis park

A park in St. Louis overlooks the Pine River and old Velsciol Chemical Corp. plant site, which polluted the river and surrounding land for decades. A project at the nearby burn pit site can’t begin without EPA funding. (Bridge file photo by Dale Young)

Three polluted sites in Michigan have Superfund projects that are idle due to a lack of funding, according to an Environmental Protection Agency list released late last month. 

The sites in St. Clair Shores in Macomb County, St. Louis in mid-Michigan and Mancelona Township in northern Michigan are in good company: 31 other Superfund sites nationwide have similarly been ground to a halt, marking the largest buildup of unfunded sites in 15 years. 

“When EPA funds new construction projects, it prioritizes those sites that present the greatest risk to human health and the environment,” EPA regional spokesman Jeff Kelley told Bridge Magazine in an email. “The agency maintains the authority to respond to and fund emergencies at these sites if there is an imminent threat to human health and the environment.”

EPA can’t estimate when funding may be made available for the projects. 

The Superfund program, intended to fund cleanup at toxic sites that have no clear responsible party that can pay for it, was originally funded by taxes on petroleum and chemical companies and other corporate fees. But since those taxes expired in 1995, the program has been funded primarily by taxpayers

In St. Louis, a town of less than 10,000 in Gratiot County, one of multiple Superfund sites left behind by Velsicol Chemical Corp. stands idle due to lack of funding. Local EPA workers have completed preparations to hook up nine homes to the area drinking water system as a preventative measure and to prepare the site to treat contaminated soil and water. 

Jim Hall, chairman of an EPA-affiliated local citizens group that monitors cleanup at the former Velsicol site, told Bridge the site isn’t presenting any danger to locals now, but that he looks forward to an eventual end to the remediation that’s been going on in the area since the early 1980s. 

“Hopefully they will fund it. They’ve already dumped how much money into St. Louis?” he said, referring to the more than $150 million of Superfund money already spent at the sites. 

“It would be my assumption that they would want to finish what they started.”

In St. Clair Shores’ 10-Mile Drain site, a PCB plume from a nearby parking lot leaked into the storm sewer discharging into residential canals that used to be used for swimming, fishing and boating access to Lake St. Clair. PCB has also been found in yards. Residents have reported concerns of property value loss and frustrations over losing access to the water. EPA can’t remediate until funding is available. 

And in Mancelona Township, a small town near the tip of Michigan’s lower peninsula, an ironworks facility dumped hazardous waste into a pond for more than 60 years, contaminating the groundwater. The water was deemed safe to drink in 2009, but EPA plans to excavate more than 100,000 tons of remaining contaminated soil and expand the existing treatment system. That project has remained unfunded for two years. 

“Cleaning up Superfund sites has been a top priority of this administration,” Kelley said. 

“Under President Trump’s leadership, America has been able to delete more contaminated Superfund sites off the National Priorities List (NPL) in his first three years than the entire Obama first term,” he said, though the Associated Press noted that deletions from the list usually reflect work done over decades.

The Trump administration has requested major cuts to EPA’s overall budget and smaller cuts to Superfund funding every year, but final funding has remained relatively steady for the department over the last several years.

Kelley, the EPA spokesman, said that with the exception of two years, EPA has not been given enough money to start all Superfund construction projects that are ready to begin since 1996.

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