Roller Coaster: Michigan’s long history with environmental contamination

Roller Coaster: Michigan’s long history with environmental contamination
June 29, 2020 John Hartig

Close your eyes for a moment and imagine you are on a roller coaster ascending the first and highest hill on the ride. You hear the click, click, click as the car slowly climbs to the top and you start getting excited, even nervous, the closer you get to the peak. Then the car reaches the pinnacle and for a moment you feel suspended, as if everything has paused. But it doesn’t last long and suddenly you begin your white-knuckled descent screaming in part fear and part excitement until you reach the bottom.

You go up and you go down. The higher you rise the further and faster you seem to fall. Like that up-and-down journey, Michigan’s struggle with toxic substance crises has many peaks and valleys.

Ecosystem health describes the condition of an ecosystem. Keeping to the roller coaster metaphor, the top of a lift hill is equivalent to relatively high ecosystem health. As the car rapidly descends from the top of the hill because of a toxic substance crisis, ecosystem health diminishes rapidly. As the car slowly ascends the next hill, ecosystem health slowly improves until another toxic substance crisis occurs plunging the car down again, symbolizing another rapid decrease in ecosystem health. In Michigan, a number of these incidents stand out in particular.

Winter waterfowl kills due to oil pollution

From 1946 to 1948, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare estimated that 5.9 million gallons of oil and other petroleum products were released into the Detroit and Rouge rivers each year. This substantial volume of oil discharged from industries lining the Rouge and Detroit rivers took its toll in the winter of 1948.  Ducks and geese over-wintering on the Detroit River in that time headed for these open waters filled with oil. The result was a massive mortality of 11,000 ducks and geese. Duck hunters from Downriver communities collected the oil-soaked carcasses of waterfowl, threw them into their pickup trucks, drove them to the State Capitol in Lansing and dumped them on the State Capitol sidewalk in protest. They held a press conference with Michigan United Conservation Clubs opposing oil pollution of the Detroit River and the resulting winter waterfowl kills. This single event has been credited with starting the industrial pollution control program in Michigan.

Pesticide Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane – DDT

As early as the 1950s, Michigan State University ornithologist George Wallace found mass die-offs of robins on his campus attributable to DDT application. Wallace’s research was later cited in Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic book “Silent Spring,” which described how pesticides like DDT were poisoning our rivers, lakes, oceans and all life. Not only were songbirds like robins vanishing from DDT exposure, but bald eagles, peregrine falcons and osprey, and it was concentrating in Great Lakes fish and endangering humans that consumed them.

In the 1960s, Norm and Barbara Spring would watch robins trembling on the grass just before dying in a city park across from their home in Grand Haven, Michigan. Norm Spring was so upset at this sight that he marched down to city hall and pleaded with the city council to stop the use of DDT that was being sprayed to halt the spread of Dutch Elm disease that was killing local elm trees. He was persistent and did not give up, attending council meetings for three years, and eventually Grand Haven stopped using DDT. People from nearby Holland, Michigan, came to Spring and asked how he managed to do this. Together they formed the Michigan Pesticides Council and met with Michigan State University professors like Wallace, government officials and other citizen activists like Joan Wolfe. As a result of this grassroots campaign, Michigan became the first state to ban DDT in 1969, three years before it was banned nationally in 1972. Incidentally, both Spring and Wolfe were added to the West Michigan Environmental Hall of Fame for their grassroots leadership in banning DDT and other hard pesticides.

Upside-Down Eagle: Bald eagles have faced a number of pollutants but are now a Great Lakes success story

1969 Rouge River Fire

On the morning of Oct. 9, 1969, the Rouge River caught on fire about 1,000 feet downstream from the I-75 freeway bridge near the city of River Rouge boundary with southwest Detroit. Smoke could be seen billowing from this river fire from 10 miles away. Oil-soaked debris on the north bank of the river and floating oil were on fire. Detroit firefighters, who extinguished the blaze, estimated that flames shot 50 feet into the air. The cause of the fire was sparks from an acetylene torch that ignited the oil and debris.

During that era, the Rouge River was perceived as a working river that supported industry and commerce. The Rouge River fire really didn’t get much attention, in contrast to the Cuyahoga River fire in Cleveland earlier that year. Water pollution and the 1969 fire were just part of the cost of doing business.

Great Lakes Moment: Five decades since the infamous Rouge River fire

Lacking Management: Michigan auditor cites lack of updates or formal processes as impediment to recovery of Detroit and Rouge rivers

Individuals wanting to play a part in keeping rivers clean are starting local

Mercury Crisis of 1970

In 1969, the Ontario Water Resources Commission—predecessor of the Ontario Ministry of the Environment—discovered elevated levels of mercury in sediments in the St. Clair River. Follow-up monitoring by government and university scientists in 1970 found mercury at five times the standard for safe human consumption, resulting in the fishery from southern Lake Huron to Lake Erie being closed. This became known as the Mercury Crisis of 1970.

The main historic source of mercury to the river was identified as the Dow Chemical Chlor-Alkali Plant in Sarnia, Ontario, which operated between 1949 and 1970. Authorities estimated that the effluent from the Sarnia plants ran as high as 50 parts per million at times, amounting to a release of approximately 100 tons of mercury into the St. Clair River, which flowed down stream to Lake St. Clair, the Detroit River and Lake Erie. Since the chlor-alkali plant was shut down, Dow has spent over $75 million to control mercury sources in sewers, drains and landfills. Between 2001 and 2005, Dow remediated approximately 18,300 cubic yards of contaminated sediments in the river at the cost of approximately $18 million.

Wyandotte Chemical Company operated another mercury cell plant that discharged to the Detroit River in Wyandotte, Michigan. It too was shut down 1972. Today, mercury levels in Lake St. Clair walleye have declined by 80 percent, although health advisories remain in effect for certain species and size classes.

Mercury Levels Maintained: Invasive mussels keep mercury levels high in Great Lakes fish

Polybrominated Biphenyl or PBB Crisis

In 1973, a plant owned by Velsicol Chemical in St. Louis, Michigan, made a mistake and shipped a toxic flame-retardant chemical called PBB to a livestock feed plant. It took about a year to discover the accident. By then, millions of Michiganders had consumed contaminated beef, chicken, pork, milk and eggs. Some 1.5 million chickens, 30,000 cattle, 5,900 pigs and 1,470 sheep had to be disposed of in landfills. In 1976, the Michigan Department of Community Health established a PBB registry to gather and analyze data on exposed residents.

Between 1971 and 1973, approximately 269,400 pounds of waste materials containing 60 to 70 percent PBB were disposed of in the Gratiot County Landfill. These PBB-contaminated wastes ended up contaminating both adjacent ground and surface waters, including the Pine River. The state eventually had to issue a health advisory banning the human consumption of all fish from the Pine River downstream of St. Louis due to PBB contamination.

Dioxin Contamination in the Tittabawassee River

Dow Chemical has manufactured over 1,000 different inorganic and organic chemicals at its Midland, Michigan, facility. The manufacture of chlorinated phenols and herbicides, and the formulation of pesticides and other products derived from them, had been major operations at this Dow facility for many years. Commercial production of chlorinated phenols began in the 1930s and continued at substantial levels into the late 1970s.

In 1978, Dow Chemical informed the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that rainbow trout exposed to a mixture of Dow Chemical’s treated effluent, prior to discharge to the Tittabawassee River, accumulated significant levels of 2,3,7,8-tetrachlorodibenzo-p-dioxin (2378-TCDD) – a highly toxic compound that researchers say can damage reproductive and immune systems and cause cancer. Supplemental analyses of Tittabawassee River catfish confirmed this contamination. The results of these studies prompted the Michigan Department of Public Health to issue an advisory in 1978 warning against human consumption of any fish collected from the Tittabawassee River downstream of Dow and the Saginaw River. The advisory remained in effect until 1986, when the Michigan Department of Public Health modified it to apply only to catfish and carp.

Dow Chemical has been involved in the site cleanup for decades. The area is on the federal Superfund list of hazardous sites. In addition, only relatively recently has an agreement been reached on the cleanup of contaminated sediments and floodplains. Then in May several catastrophic dam failures resulted in a once-in-500-year flood that caused the evacuation of over 10,000 people in Midland. Scientists and activists fear that this flood moved and spread these contaminants further downstream and into floodplains that were not previously contaminated.

Midland Flooding: Climate change and rains exacerbate dam infrastructure issues

More Than Dow: Chemicals, contaminants and untreated sewage all washed out by Midland dam breaks

Flood raises fears of pollution at Michigan toxic waste site

Legal Responsibility: Michigan lawsuit blames dam owner for Midland dam failure

NASA images show impact of Midland County flooding

Hooker Chemical Company – White Lake

Hooker Chemical Company operated a chemical plant in Montague, Michigan, from 1952 till 1983, after which Occidental Chemical Corporation became the facility operator. Hooker Chemical produced chlorine, sodium hydroxide, hydrochloric acid and a compound called hexachlorocyclopentadiene or C-56—a toxic chemical used in the manufacture of pesticides like mirex and kepone, and flame retardants. A number of chlorinated hydrocarbon by-products were formed during the manufacture of C-56, including chloroform, carbon tetrachloride, trichloroethylene, tetrachloroethylene, octachlorocyclopentene (C-58), hexachlorobenzene (C-66), hexachlorobutadiene and mirex. Hooker terminated production of C-56 in 1977, and all chemical manufacturing ceased in 1982. However, past disposal practices continued to contaminate ground and surface waters. In the late 1970s, the Michigan DNR estimated that approximately 368 kg per day of chlorinated hydrocarbons were entering White Lake from Hooker property and that several residential wells were contaminated.

In 1979, the state of Michigan filed a lawsuit against Hooker to clean up the site and prevent further contamination of ground and surface waters. Site cleanup started around 1981 and 1982. The bulk of contaminated surface soil was placed onsite in a lined landfill, which is maintained through a long-term management plan. The 10-acre landfill contains approximately 970,000 tons of contaminated soil.

In 1993, Occidental Chemical signed an Administrative Order with the U.S. EPA to investigate contamination and implement corrective measures. A remedy was agreed to in 2001 and all remediation was completed by 2005. Groundwater and waste disposal vault monitoring continue.

The “blob” in the St. Clair River

In 1985, a large dry-cleaning solvent spill occurred in the St. Clair River from chemical industries in Petrochemical Valley in Sarnia, Ontario. An estimated over 2,900 gallons of perchloroethylene were released into the river due to a faulty valve on a pipeline belonging to Dow Chemical. Because perchloroethylene is heavier than water, it settled in a great mass at the bottom of the river and soon became widely known as “the blob.”

The blob was discovered by divers from the Great Lakes Institute of the University of Windsor who were sampling sediments from the bottom of the river. Also found in the blob were trace amounts of dioxin. This attracted national media attention and resulted in the temporary closure of all municipal water intakes from the St. Clair River down to the Detroit River. Dow recovered most of the spilled substance, changed its industrial practices and was fined $11,500 for spilling a hazardous waste into the river.

Flint Water Crisis

In a cost-cutting move, Flint officials made an ill-fated decision in 2014 to switch water sources from Detroit’s regional water system to the Flint River. Soon after, Flint residents started complaining that the water from their taps looked, smelled and tasted foul.

Despite protests by residents, officials maintained that the water was safe. A study conducted the following year by researchers at Virginia Tech University revealed that the water was tainted with high concentrations of lead, known to cause anemia, weakness and kidney and brain damage. Water samples collected from 252 homes revealed nearly 17 percent of the samples were above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion, the level at which corrective action must be taken. More than 40 percent measured above 5 parts per billion of lead, which researchers deemed a very serious problem.

In 2015, Flint pediatrician Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha found that elevated blood-lead levels in children throughout the city had nearly doubled since 2014. In some neighborhoods they nearly tripled. Experts reported that nearly 9,000 Flint children were drinking lead-contaminated water for 18 months.

In 2015, Flint switched its water supply back to the Detroit water system. It also has been replacing lead and galvanized water lines and encourages use of water filters. The state of Michigan now has a new lead and copper rule representing the strictest water standard in the nation.

Overall, more than a dozen lawsuits, including several additional class-action suits, were filed against Michigan and the city of Flint, as well as various state and city officials and employees involved in the decision to switch the water supply and those responsible for monitoring water quality. Concern for long-term effects of lead exposure, particularly in children, remains.

The Door Flint Opened: America’s Drinking Water Crisis

IJNR Snapshots: The human and environmental costs of emergency management in Detroit and Flint

Per- and Polyfluoroalkyl Substances (PFAS) in the Huron River

PFAS were used commercially starting in the 1950s as a product to repel water, protect surfaces, resist heat and other properties. They are part of a class of compounds called “forever chemicals” for their longevity in the environment. PFAS have been linked harmful health effects, including cancer, immune system dysfunction, liver damage, developmental and reproductive harm, and hormone disruption. Since 2006, some forms of PFAS have been largely phased out of use in the U.S. under a voluntary agreement.

In 2017, PFAS contamination of drinking water and fish was discovered in the Huron River in southeast Michigan. PFAS contamination is now found in many watersheds throughout the United States because of its ubiquitous use. This PFAS contamination resulted in a “Do Not Eat” advisory on all fish from the Huron River. Communities along the Huron River are now fighting to eliminate all sources of PFAS and clean up the river. PFAS can now be found in the blood of over 90 percent of Americans and have even been found in polar bears in the Arctic Circle.

PFAS Around the Great Lakes Region: Actions taken in each state or province and standards set, if any

PFAS News Roundup: Michigan collects 30k gallons foam, New York burning restrictions, Wisconsin leads 22-state coalition

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A call to anticipate and prevent

The U.S.-Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement calls for the “virtual elimination of the discharge of persistent toxic substances” with a philosophy of “zero discharge.” Further, this agreement calls for strengthened measures to anticipate and prevent ecological harm. William McDonough and Michael Braungart have provided a blueprint for achieving this in their book “Cradle to Cradle: Rethinking the Way We Make Things.” They argue that waste is a product of poor design and promote that waste is food, and that everything is part of a cycle. Their solution is switching from a cradle-to-grave approach to making things to a cradle-to-cradle approach that achieves a circular economy, eliminates waste and ensures the continual use of resources.

McDonough and Braungart believe that we do not have a pollution problem but a design problem. Instead of trying to design something that is less bad, we should be designing things better from the start. The cradle-to-cradle process looks at the entire life cycle of a product from extraction of raw materials to what happens to the materials after a person is finished using the product, with the optimal goal of endless recycling of all the materials in a product.

The ten examples of environmental crises in Michigan should give each of us pause and motivation to ensure we are using a cradle-to-cradle approach that anticipates and prevents pollution and ecological harm. It could start with a strong and clear cradle-to-cradle policy that creates a sense of shared purpose and guides behavior.

All decisions about design of products should be made based on the precautionary principle that states that when human activities may lead to unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, actions shall be taken to avoid or diminish that harm. Perhaps William McDonough has stated it best:

There are millions of difficult challenges and delightful opportunities ahead.  I think the only constraint is the willingness to dream, to create and to hope and feel undefended enough to face the tough questions and ideas that must be fiercely engaged at this moment of human history.  If design is the signal of human intention then we must continuously ask ourselves – What are our intentions for our children, for the children of all species, for all time?  How do we profitably and boldly manifest the best of those intentions?

Featured image: In this undated photo provided by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, a group of people take a walk through the Eagle Ridge project area, located east of Midland in Midland County, Mich. Dow Chemical Co. has agreed to fund environmental restoration projects worth an estimated $77 million to compensate for decades of pollution by its plant in Midland, Michigan, officials said Nov. 8, 2019. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service via AP)


  1. John V Stone 4 years ago

    Thank you for writing this, John!

  2. Barbara Spring 4 years ago

    Thanks for all you do.

  3. SHOSHANA HANTMAN 3 years ago

    This article is intensely valuable to me in my writing project. Thank you.

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