EPA tannery investigation—‘There is no emergency here’

Contaminants found in multiple test sites on Wolverine property

by BETH ALTENA 

Representatives from the Environmental Protection Agency and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality answer questions posed by the public on Tuesday, April 24. The meeting was held to update the community on the progress of testing underway at the former Wolverine Worldwide tannery property in downtown Rockford.

About a hundred residents, including city officials and Wolverine Worldwide representatives, attended a public meeting held jointly by the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) on Tuesday, April 24 at the Rockford Freshman Center.

A presentation by a team of four representatives of the environmental agencies detailed the background of their investigation, where the testing stands to date, what possible future outcomes of the process may be, and answered questions well after the 9 p.m. expected close of the meeting. Comments from the public regarding the situation were about evenly mixed among those supporting Wolverine in their actions in removing the former tannery and those who appeared skeptical of the company’s actions or worried about contamination.

Dave Novak, community involvement coordinator of the Superfund Division of the EPA, began the evening’s presentation, introducing the other representatives. “We are looking for conclusions based on good science, not speculation,” he stated. “We have a great deal of information in a relatively short period of time. We are letting good science lead us on our journey.” He then gave the floor to Naria Nunez of the EPA.

Nunez said the EPA was contacted by a citizens’ petition June 21, 2011 describing concerns over releases during the demolition of the former tannery at 123 N. Main Street, Rockford. She said the petition indicated the demolition was of community concern and included photographs of discolored water running off the property and questions about the past use of chromium at the property.

The EPA decided to investigate the site, and began testing in October of last year. Nunez said preliminary testing results found some contamination with potential of offsite contact. The investigation is still underway and is in the preliminary stages. At any time the EPA could decide no further response is necessary; could call for removal of contaminates or could refer the investigation to another government program.

The EPA could also continue to investigate and at the end of the process could rank the site based on a system called a Hazardous Ranking System. This is an evaluation of the property based on evaluations of groundwater, surface water, air, ground, or any one or several of these criteria, depending on what is appropriate. The four criteria are rated based on their potential impact on human health and environmental health.

The next speaker was PC Lall, PE of the EPA Region Five Emergency Response and Removal branch. In his earlier introduction by Novak, Novak was quick to point out that Lall’s presence at the meeting did not mean there was an emergency at the site. “There is no emergency here,” he’d stated.

Lall described the three types of sites: classic, time critical and non-time critical. He said the first stage of any response is site assessment. Site assessment includes looking for sources and looking for what is happening to cause the contamination to migrate. He said examples of this could be contaminates releasing to the air during evaporation. He said in the former tannery site, 14 soil samples were taken; five from the Rogue River bank and nine on the former tannery property. On the tannery property, samples were taken from the east portion of the tannery site, the former pit area, and where the wastewater treatment tank was located.

Lall said of the five samples on the riverbank, all contained contaminates. Of the nine samples on the property, eight showed contamination. “We do not have an emergency,” Lall stated. “We do have contamination and we are still evaluating.”

Next speaking was Joseph Walczak, senior environmental specialist for the MDEQ. Walczak said all site assessment of environmental issues for the EPA in the state of Michigan are handled through his office. He noted that by law the EPA has one year to respond from the start of an investigation, and by June 21, 2012 a report will be available to the public.

Walczak said the MDEQ collected samples of soil from the property in six locations as well as a sample upriver and one downriver from the former tannery.  The samples showed detectable levels of many chemicals, including arsenic, cadmium, chromium and others. “We have detections above the detection levels of a bunch of different things,” he stated. “It’s actually somewhat good news that these aren’t that high—not what we’ve seen at other chromium tanneries.”

“They are above detectable levels, but nothing that makes us say we’ve got a huge problem here,” Walczak stated. He also noted that the higher levels were all from the deepest samples, indicating that the impact is of historical nature, not current or an ongoing issue.

Lall jumped into the discussion prompted by a question from an audience member about releases into the air and responded, “No air releases are taking place at this time. He also stated that there was no lead found in the samples and all the samples were subsurface samples, not surface samples.

“Given the fact that it was a tannery that used chromium and we found chromium on the site, I would assume that was the background,” he stated. “It’s a prime piece of property and we want to have it cleaned up and ready for redevelopment.”

After the close of the formal presentation, the panel asked for questions. Georgia Donovan, president of the local Izaak Walton League chapter asked about the likelihood of contaminants pooling at the basin of water at the Rockford dam. Wolczak took her question and said his downstream samples were taken for that very question. He said he sampled both sides of the dam and found contaminates that were very deep, indicating a historic nature, not recent contamination.            “We definitely need to investigate further. That’s what these numbers are saying,” Wolczak stated.

Jason Ropp, attorney with Blakeslee Ropp PLC, commented that Wolverine seemed to be working well with the EPA and MDEQ and wanted to know if that fact has a bearing on the overall outcome of the process.

“That does get taken into account,” said Wolczak. “If the site doesn’t get a score, we can rule no further action needs to be taken. If it does score, it could also go to another remedial program.”

When asked about the timeline of the investigation, Wolczak noted that in a high profile situation, extra care is taken to make sure all the t’s get crossed and i’s get dotted, making the investigation longer than it might otherwise have been.

Bob Winegar, local Lion, said we don’t live in a perfect world and some contaminates could come from up river. He described that his family used to spray lead dust on the potato patch to kill the potato worms.

Wolczak also reminded residents that the Rogue River has been sampled in 2008 and will be sampled every five years as a matter of course. “Those samples will give us a good background.”

City Manager Michael Young also spoke, reminding residents that the City monitored the demolition with professional consultants, who twice shut down operations during the process. “Our consultants have not found this site a threat to human health or the environment,” he said. “We believe we have a very cooperative industry. We have three layers of government involved in this process. I would like to let Wolverine work with the DEQ to take care of the property. It is a critical property of economic and recreational importance.” He said he appreciated the EPA’s recognition that there is a triple bottom line at work in this case: environmental, economic and social importance.

Tom Cronkright, resident and property owner, stood to say he lives right on the Rogue River. “If the collective community thought this was a danger, we would have split the heavens to stop it, and we didn’t.” He said he was actually pleasantly surprised by the information from the testing to date. “We have faith and trust in the people involved at the local level and at the state level.” His comments drew applause from the audience.

Dave Rasmussen, member of the Rockford Planning Commission, asked for a “guestimate” of the best case versus worst case compared to many other sites in the state that “need you worse than we do.”

“Do we see this as bad as other tannery sites? No,” Wolczak responded. “Do we see this as the nastiest? No. Is it the cleanest site I’ve ever seen? No.”

Regarding Wolverine’s responsiveness to the investigation Wolczak reiterated, “I believe they are committed. That will definitely play into our decision.”

Wolczak said the MDEQ and EPA are waiting to review any spill history information from Wolverine to see if there are other spots that should be tested. “Work could be done on the site right now. What levels of cleanup is recommended would depend on future use.”

Dr. Michael Shibler, superintendent of Rockford schools, voiced the last comment of the evening. “We have a very special community here in Rockford,” he said. “We want a healthy environment and we also want a healthy economic environment.”

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