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The cancer-causing sludge that oozed onto a Michigan highway is a disturbing sign of a larger issue

Posted at 7:14 AM, Dec 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-12-30 09:18:52-05

MADISON HEIGHTS, Mich. — On Dec. 20, a yellowish-green sludge oozed on to I-696 in Michigan, briefly shutting the highway down.

The sludge was later identified as Hexavalent Chromium — the chemical made infamous in the movie Erin Brockovich.

The Environmental Protection Agency claimed to have cleaned up the chemical in 2017. So why is Hexavalent Chromiumstill in Michigan storm drains and ground water?

How did it all start?

The contamination problem started more than 20 years ago. That's when Gary Alfred Sayers became president of Electro Plating Services. According to the Department of Justice, Sayers almost never properly disposed of the hazardous waste his company produced.

From Cyanide to toxic chromium 6 — he kept it all.

Many of those toxic chemicals corroded the containers in which they were stored and began to leak. In some instances, the chemicals were improperly stored from the start. From the late '90s to 2016, Sayers received numerous warnings from Michigan's environmental agency, but the Department of Justice says he ignored all the warnings.

Sayers even had a pit dug in the lower level of Electro Plating Service's building to hold Hexavalent Chromium, likely putting the cancer-causing chemicals closer to a water source.

In December of 2016, the now Department of Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE) shut down Electro Plating Services due to multiple violations. The EPA was called in for an emergency clean up.

What exactly did the EPA do?

A statement from U.S. EPA, the agency reads in part:

"In June, 2017, EPA undertook a $2 million hazardous waste cleanup at the former Electro Plating Services facility. During EPA's time-critical removal action, the goal was to remove all of the direct contact threats, including all containers and contaminated liquid in the building. EPA removed over 5000 containers and pumped 37,000 gallons of hexavalent chromium (or chromium VI) contaminated water from the basement."

For perspective, 37,000 gallons could fill two standard in-ground rectangle pools.

The pit Sayers had dug in the basement was emptied, back-filled and compacted.

Once "the imminent and substantial threat from the containers of hazardous waste" was removed, the EPA's work was done. It was then up to the state of Michigan to finish the job.

The EPA says subsurface sampling did indicate the need for further assessment and potential long-term action. Toxic chemicals leaked out of their containers for years, and surface clean up could only do so much,

In January 2018, the EPA turned the rest of the clean up over to the state of Michigan, to EGLE.

But EGLE says it has not done any further testing or clean up near the site because it doesn't have the money.

In fact, the Electro Plating Services site is one of thousands of contaminated sites in the state of Michigan. The department just doesn't have the money to assess just how toxic it is, let alone clean up tainted soil and poisoned groundwater.

With such a rich manufacturing history in Michigan but yet such a poorly funded environmental agency, that green ooze on I-696 in Madison Heights is a sign of a much bigger problem.

So what now?

The EPA says the green ooze earlier this month initiated "emergency action, according to a statement released by the department.

"Due to the migration of subsurface contamination to the surface, EPA initiated an emergency action to remove contaminated materials from the ground. EPA is also conducting an expanded assessment to determine if other time-critical actions are necessary. Once the assessment is complete and in coordination with the city/state, both short-term and long term cleanup goals can be established."

EGLE says it is working with both federal and local agencies to determine the best course of action.

"EGLE is coordinating with federal and local partners to review decades of decision-making and testing at this site. That process will help us determine if there were gaps in the site analysis, and/or improvements that could be made. That review will take some time."

This story was originally published by Jennifer Ann Wilson on WXYZ in Detroit.