Environmental town hall helps residents connect with officials

Paula Neuman

Enhanced lines of communication were created at the Feb. 20 Environmental Town Hall in Trenton.

More than 300 Downriver residents raised a number of local environmental concerns, and their voices were heard by dozens of federal, state and local experts. At the end of the two-hour event, many residents and government officials exchanged contact information, talked one-on-one and learned from one another.

The town hall was presented by Congresswoman Debbie Dingell, who moderated the two-hour event, and also talked about her own concerns for the Downriver environment and beyond.

“We’re all here to listen and to try to figure out what’s going on,” she said. “We’re all here because a lot of people have been having a lot of conversations about a lot of different projects Downriver. We want this to be an opportunity for you to talk to the experts.”

Water levels

High water level was one of the concerns raised by Liesl Clark, director of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (often called EaGLE), who brought with her to the town hall five or six agency experts in a variety of fields.

“We’re all dealing across the state with the challenge of high water,” Clark said. “We’re anticipating this to continue going up. Our ground water is totally saturated. Regular storms are really challenging right now because there’s nowhere for the water to go.”

Record storms are going to bring record challenges, she said.

Nick Zager, chief of planning for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and a Wyandotte resident, agreed.

“We’re responsible for forecasting those water levels,” he said. “They’re on the rise. They’re already the highest they’ve ever been and unfortunately, it’s not looking like it’s going to be coming down any time soon.”

Andy Hartz, district supervisor of EGLE’s Water Resources Unit in Warren, invited residents to come talk to him and his staff members who were there about their specific high water issues.

McLouth cleanup

Brian Kelly, EPA Region 5 Emergency Response on-scene coordinator and a Wyandotte resident, brought up the McLouth Steel cleanup, and explained its progress so far.

“I’m the point person on the McLouth Steel cleanup,” he said. “It’s a very long process.”

The first phase of the Trenton cleanup, involving the demolition of the plant’s buildings and the drying up of the site’s polluted ponds, is underway and should be completed this summer, he said. Then EPA Superfund experts will assess the hazards that are left and come up with a remedial plan. That cleanup work should start in the summer of 2021.

The federal Superfund National Priorities List administered by the EPA was created to clean up some of the nation’s most contaminated lands and to respond to environmental emergencies, oil spills and natural disasters. The Trenton McLouth complex sits on about 200 acres directly across the Trenton Channel of the Detroit River from Grosse Ile.

Wayne County foreclosed on the dilapidated site in 2017, leading to its purchase by billionaire Manuel Moroun’s family company Crown Enterprises Inc., and MSC Land Co. LLC, also a Moroun business. MSC signed on to the Superfund cleanup agreement. Moroun’s companies have proposed to redevelop the property, once the cleanup is complete, for an industrial project described in Wayne County documents as an intermodal shipping port.

Residents at the town hall meeting raised the issue of the projected redevelopment plan, stating opposition to any industrial use there.

Superfund Remedial Project Manager Nabil Fayoumi addressed the concern, and told the residents that any zoning and redevelopment of the McLouth site ultimately will be up to the community and the plant’s owner as long as environmental restrictions are observed. And until the Superfund assessment and remediation takes place, no one can say for sure what is possible for the land’s future.

Former long-time McLouth employee Lou Wilson spoke from the audience about how contaminated the site is.

“I’ve worked in every hole there, every department there,” Wilson said. “It all had asbestos in it. We had 350 companies that supplied us with asbestos products that we used daily in the plant.”

He also talked about the plant’s “miles of pipe and sluiceways” — all contaminated — and offered the cleanup officials whatever information and help he could provide.

EGLE’s asbestos inspector for the McLouth site talked about violations issued, the most recent of which was three months ago when demolition of a large industrial oven containing asbestos resulted in a visible cloud of dust. Two more ovens have yet to come down.

“They’re trying to come up with a new game plan on how to get those demolished and still stay within the asbestos standards,” the state inspector said. “We’ve gone back and forth on the plan.”

Former Riverview Councilman Elmer Trombley and a former McLouth employee also talked about McLouth cleanup issues, brought up the former Atofina chemical plant site and also how the EPA’s Grosse Ile office was recently moved to Ann Arbor, which he called “a shame.”

Dingell agreed with Trombley about that, and said she is still “fighting” that move by adding the issue to an appropriations bill.

PFAs pollution

The congresswoman also brought up PFAs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), a group of man-made chemical contaminants used globally in many consumer products and by many industries.

“These chemicals are persistent in the environment and in the human body — meaning they don’t break down and they can accumulate over time,” according to the EGLE website. “In recent years, experts have become increasingly concerned by the potential effects of high concentrations of PFAs on human health.”

State bills to regulate PFAs in drinking water were introduced last year in Lansing, but failed to gain Republican support. So in October, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer directed EGLE to establish drinking water standards for PFAs. Residents at the town hall meeting asked about the progress of that effort and expressed concern over airborne PFAs.

Clark said EGLE has received “2,000 comments on the regulatory process,” which is proceeding, and that she shares residents’ concerns.

“The governor is trying to do everything she can,” Clark said. “PFAs is huge. I sense your urgency and I don’t want you to feel that we don’t have a sense of urgency, too. We’re trying to do everything we can with the powers we’ve got.”

Dingell is still hoping a bill she introduced  in Congress to create federal standards for PFAs in water systems will become law. The bill passed the House in January with bipartisan support, but is stalled now waiting for approval from the Senate, and President Donald Trump has threatened to veto it. Without legislation, the EPA has no authority to regulate PFAs. Dingell shared her frustration with that, and with the recent federal rollback of water standards in general.

“We should be concerned,” she said, adding that “Michigan is testing for PFAs more than any other state in the country.”

Clark said: “Every state has got PFAs. They just don’t know they have it yet. Our focus immediately was drinking water, and we’ve got a group looking at air and thinking about how to amp up that component of our PFAs work.”

River sediment dredging

Wyandotte Councilman Rob DeSana brought up the proposed Army Corps dredging of contaminated sediment in the upper Trenton Channel of the Detroit River directly adjoining south Wyandotte and north Riverview. He said disturbing the sediment might not be a good thing.

Zager said 215 cubic yards of contaminated sediment have to be removed, and that cleaning it up is important to the river’s ecosystem, including its fish, which are eaten by residents.

“We do not have a time frame on when that’s going to occur,” he said. “It’s a bit of a complicated project.”