No Quick Fix On Groundwater Contamination

October 16, 2008
| By Pete Daly |
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Ten years ago, Bruce Whetter of Cascade Township agreed to buy a badly contaminated industrial site near Lansing and work with the state on cleaning it up. He probably never imagined then that they'd still be at it in 2008.

Now, finishing the job may ultimately depend on a vote of the people of Michigan in November.

In 1998, Whetter was interested in buying the Americhem chemical distribution company in Mason. Then the owners discovered extensive pollution of the groundwater below the site and had to report it to the Department of Environmental Quality. Whetter said he lost interest in the property because he wanted to avoid liability for the pollution.

Whetter had spent decades in the chemical distribution industry and was an active supporter of the Responsible Distribution Process program promoted by the National Association of Chemical Distributors. RDP is a systematic process to prevent chemical contamination of the environment to ensure the safety of everyone.

Then Whetter told state environmental officials how the RDP process would enable him to manage Americhem so that pollution would never happen there again.

"I stuck my neck out," he said, taking on a "huge risk" in getting a failing company turned around. He negotiated an agreement with the DEQ, in which he would put money into a cleanup fund for the site, and he pledged he would cooperate completely with DEQ efforts to remediate the pollution. In return, the state of Michigan would not hold him liable for the environmental damage that had been done before he bought the business.

While Whetter said he paid nothing to the former owners to acquire ownership of Americhem, he did put more than $437,500 into an escrow account for cleanup efforts managed by the DEQ, and he is committed to putting as much as $200,000 more into that account.

But that wasn't all.

"I put up about $3 million to build a new tank farm" at Americhem that was designed by the DEQ. "I borrowed a few million dollars at that point," said Whetter.

Years later, Americhem is a thriving business. "We built it into a viable company," he said.

Americhem is an independent distributor with industrial customers throughout Michigan and other Midwestern states and employs 26. Whetter declined to reveal annual sales revenue, but said sales have increased "threefold" since he acquired the company.

In 2006, Whetter was honored by the National Association of Chemical Distributors, who presented Americhem with the RDP Excellence Award. The annual award goes to a company with demonstrated outstanding performance in RDP, based on the findings of two independent verification firms.

"We really appreciate the cooperation we've gotten" from Whetter since he bought Americhem, said Cheryl Stanfield, senior geologist in the DEQ Remediation and Redevelopment Division.

According to Robert McCann, spokesperson for the DEQ, Americhem began operating in the early 1970s. Petroleum products, solvents and other chemicals are stored and blended at the facility.

Before Whetter came on the scene, repeated spills and leaks from storage tanks caused contamination that entered groundwater beneath the site. While much work has already been done by the DEQ since 1999 to remove the contaminants, "we have a lot of work left to do," said McCann.

And the clock is ticking on a potentially worse situation.

"That groundwater would be unsafe to drink, and it's moving," said McCann. "It's migrated, as of today, over a half-mile north of the site, and starting to move south of the site as well. The concern is that the contamination is approaching" Sycamore Creek.

"If that creek gets contaminated, we may have some problems with the actual drinking water that the (Mason) community uses," he said.

The city of Mason has three municipal wells that tap into the aquifer that is directly in line with the "plume" of contaminated groundwater expanding from the Americhem site. There are also some private wells in the threatened area.

"We've got a real big problem," said McCann.

According to McCann, the state has spent more than $4 million over the years pumping up groundwater at Americhem and removing contamination before pumping the water back down again.

The escrowed accounts funded by Whetter were "depleted rapidly," said McCann.

"Ultimately, we began to realize that we were going to need a lot more work than that was going to cover," said McCann, who also echoed Stanfield's comment that Whetter "certainly is trying to be as helpful as he can."

Stanfield said roughly 10,000 gallons of diluted petroleum compounds have been removed, "but we estimate there may be as much as 35,000 gallons of product in the ground, yet to be recovered."

In June, the DEQ began using a sophisticated vapor extraction system that removes chemical contamination from the soil.

McCann said as much as $2 million may be needed to finish removing the contamination, which could take another four or five years.

"The problem here is, we're running out of money, quickly. By the end of this year," said McCann.

Michigan voters approved two major bond proposals years ago, one in the 1980s and one in the late 1990s, to fund brownfield cleanup projects around the state. The total raised by the two bond initiatives was about $1.5 billion, according to McCann.

"The reality is that by the end of this year, those bond funds will be exhausted completely and we are going to have to start shutting down. Not only not starting new (remediation) work, but actually shutting down the ongoing systems if we don’t get some replacement funding put in place," said McCann.

Bills have been proposed in the Legislature to get on the November ballot the question of renewing the Clean Michigan bond initiative.

"If that bond passes, then we've got a plan in place to keep working at the Americhem site," said McCann.

If the bond proposal fails to get voter approval, then "sometime next year we'll actually have to shut down the systems that are there right now."

As for the spread of the groundwater contamination into the wellhead area, "it's really not a question of 'if,' but 'when,'" he said. CQX

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