Public radio from Western Michigan University 102.1 NPR News | 89.9 Classical WMUK
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

State Targets Sites With Underground Tank Leaks

Sehvilla Mann

Underground tanks get special attention in state and federal environmental law.

That’s because many of the substances people store in them – like gasoline – are the kinds of things you don’t want in your soil or groundwater, and you really don’t want them in your drinking water.

Unfortunately, underground tanks do sometimes leak, and some spills don’t get cleaned up for years or even decades. A program at Department of Environmental Quality aims to cut down the state’s backlog of uninvestigated sites.

Here’s what that means for one site in Calhoun County.

On the west edge of Albion, Krista Trout-Edwards unlocks the gate at the site of the former Harvard Industries.

“It was a foundry,” she says. “They had giant cauldrons that they used to make auto parts with.”

The plant – just north of the Kalamazoo River – goes back as far as 1888.

“At one time it was very big operation and a huge employment source for the community,” Trout-Edwards says.

But by 2002 the company was bankrupt. The foundry closed. The property went into tax foreclosure. And that’s how it came to the Calhoun County Land Bank, where Trout-Edwards is the executive director.
Right now there’s not much to see except concrete foundations broken up by weeds. But Trout-Edwards says with its location and about 50 acres of space,

“You could see why it would be attractive to developers if we could, you know, get the environmental situation cleaned up.”

The “environmental situation” at the site is less than ideal – though it’s not as bad as it used to be. In 2009 the Environmental Protection Agency removed what it considered to be immediate hazards – like PCB-contaminated oil.

But the former foundry has at least one other problem – pollution from several underground tanks. That’s how it ended up in the Department of Environmental Quality’s 2014 tank triage program.

“We call it ‘triage’ because it’s a quick and dirty way of getting in, getting some information and determining what the risks are and what else needs to be done if anything,” says DEQ-Kalamazoo District Supervisor Frank Ballo.

He says the state knows of about 7000 sites that need further attention because of a leak from an underground tank. About thirty of them, in seven counties, made it onto the Kalamazoo District’s triage list.

“Overwhelmingly they were gas stations,” Ballo says, “But there’s some municipal offices, some bus garages that also have releases.”

And the list includes a few industrial sites. Thanks to a state fee on gasoline sales, the state has some funds for cleanups so-called “orphan” sites. Those are the ones that have either been abandoned or where the owner doesn’t have the means to pay.

“We bring the major risks under control so that when we walk away from it, we’re pretty assured that nobody’s going to be unacceptably exposed,” Ballo says.

The triage program is meant to fast-track an otherwise slow-moving process. It allows DEQ to assign one contractor to run tests on hundreds of sites at one time, rather than assigning contractors one by one. The legislature had to pass a bill to make it possible. Ballo says it’s a big step forward, but,

“The money we have, if it’s continued in the future will allow us to address the rest of those, -- excuse me – will allow us to address the worst of those, but I don’t think there’s going to be sufficient resources to clean up every site.”

Michigan used to have a couple of insurance funds that tank owners paid into. Those would cover at least some cleanup costs after a leak. But the last one ended in 2009. Now the legislature is considering bringing an insurance fund back. Ballo says if that happens,

“I think we would probably see a lot more activity occurring at a lot of the leaking underground storage tank sites.”

The DEQ knows there’s at least some pollution from the tanks at Harvard Industries. The company used one to store gasoline. The rest held something called quench oil.

“It’s an oil that was used in the foundry process to cool the metals,” says DEQ project manager Steve Beukema.

Beukema oversees many of the sites in the triage program – including Harvard Industries. He says so far, it doesn’t look like gas and quench oil from the tanks has reached the Kalamazoo River – but they’re still waiting for test results.

“We were able to investigate up and to to fence line on the triage property but we’ve got a railroad right of way south of it, so we’ll be gaining access to that to investigate further,” he says.

The DEQ expects to have the results later this summer.

“The next step will be evaluating all the reports from the triage contractors to see what category these sites can fall in,” he adds.

"Some of them might not need a cleanup. Others might have contamination but at a low enough level that it’s not considered much of a risk. Or it could be in a category where something needs to be done, and we could evaluate it for state funding."

Albion Economic Development Corporation Director Peggy Sindt says Harvard’s closing was “very traumatic” for the community. Ever since then the EDC has hoped to see something else move in. And – they’ve had some nibbles.

“We recently actually had somebody who was quite intrigued by it but their timetable was such that they didn’t – they couldn’t take the time to clean up the property in terms of removing the concrete debris,” she says.

The DEQ and the Land Bank would like to see the site in better shape, so a developer might bite. They recently met with Sindt of the Albion EDC to talk about what kinds of grants might be available beyond dealing with the tanks.

Sehvilla Mann joined WMUK’s news team in 2014 as a reporter on the local government and education beats. She covered those topics and more in eight years of reporting for the Station, before becoming news director in 2022.