Monday, January 21, 2008

A Saga of an Inhabited Wasteland: Part I

It is a warm November day, but no children are laughing and playing on what used to be the Suburban Softball field. The diamond is overgrown, the clubhouses and trailers have a look of desperation, junk everywhere. On the horizon, a sole young man talks on his cell phone, and eventually gets on his mini-bike and rides off.

There are at least 12 local landfills in Oakland and Macomb within a mile of recreation areas. While many landfills have been safely converted into parks and sports facilities there have still been safety issues and problems with regulating many of these sites.

For well over 20 years youths from Rochester Hills played softball on this old landfill, and for over 20 years people have been exposed to elevated methane levels and dangerous leachates.
The site is now owned by Real Estate Interests Group Inc, a Bloomfield Hills based developer that has dealt with problem sites in the past. When REI bought the site they shut down Suburban Softball because they were obligated to the 1994 Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act that makes a new owner of a contaminated site liable under due care.

Due care means that the owner of a site must take proper precautions to not operate a dangerous site that includes explosion risks and the migration of dangerous chemicals off of the site.

What is different about purchasing contaminated land after Michigan’s Natural Resources and Environmental Protection Act is that upon purchase the owner must take an environmental survey of the land called a Baseline Environmental Assessment (BEA). This report must be turned in to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ).

The Suburban Softball fields were actually two former adjacent landfills. One is called the Veteran’s Landfill and was an unregulated and unrestricted dump from the end of WWII until 1973. The second landfill, also known as the Cardinal Land Corporation landfill was a licensed landfill run by Browning Ferris Industries until it was closed in 1978.

The problem with the Veteran’s Landfill was that since it wasn’t regulated, garbage was placed directly on the soil. Normally landfills have clay liners or some other method to protect leachates from oozing out of the site and into the groundwater. Some parts of this site had a thin clay liner that was initially found under the site, but no other precautions were ever taken.

The top of the landfills did have about two feet of clay material placed over it to act as a cap to prevent rain water from entering the landfill and to aid in limiting gas migrations. When garbage in a landfill decomposes it gives off methane as a by-product. The methane can often get into buildings and cause explosions, when the methane leaves a site it is referred to as a gas migration.

Shortly after Browning Ferris Industries closed their landfill the site was bought by Dirk Dieters and he opened Suburban Softball, after his purchase there were little improvements done to the site. “We’ve had nothing but ten years of environmental problems” confirms Rochester Hills Director of Planning Ed Anzek

Recent assessments done by REI engineers have found that the landfill cap ranges from 4-feet thick to 6 inches and that it is porous allowing rainwater to get underneath.
When rainwater infiltrates a site and can seep out the bottom it causes leachate outbreaks. Leachates are when dangerous chemicals seep out of a waste site. What is more significant is that these leachates are draining right into the Clinton River.

Anzek further explains that: “The Private storm-water detention system that runs across the front of the landfill collapsed about ten years ago. And when I’m talking collapsed this is 40-feet deep right next to all the varying household waste; a pipe collapses, leachates leachated the biodegrading poisons from a landfill site were getting into this pipe going directly to the Clinton River. We were after him to fix this pipe he said I don’t have the money I’m not gonna do it.”
Another concern was the light posts that were installed for night games. The light posts drilled through the cap of the landfill releasing methane gas. Richard Zanotti who is the Land Development Director for REI told the city council in a Brownfield meeting that the light poles initially had to keep being straightened out when they were originally installed because they were anchored in garbage and some fell right over.

Anzek also showed concern over the lights saying: “They did their methane testing and would get whiffs of methane coming out of the ground next to the light posts they had open electrical circuitry any spark with methane, Boom.”

Rochester Hills Mayor Bryan Barnett is quick to add: “We take those methane issues very seriously because we actually had a house in the year 2000 blow up in the city of Rochester Hills located next to a landfill…”

REI has since put in gas probes to monitor methane readings and they have found on-site readings at the 70% level along with 40% concentration levels off-site. To put this in perspective a home with just 15% of methane concentrations could cause a home to explode.
So far there have been many different plans on how to clean this up, current estimates for the complete removal of all waste is in the range of $35-$40 million.

REI originally submitted a work plan referred to as the 381 work plan. This called for the complete removal of all 900,000 cubic yards of waste. After the waste was removed they would put in a clay liner.

After REI had the 381 work plan approved they proposed a change. Zanotti explained to the city council in a Brownfield meeting that the office building that was supposed to go on top of the landfill was moved and therefore they could have a four-five thousand square foot pad on clean soil.

Instead of cleaning the landfill they claim to be containing it. The next proposed change was to put a parking lot and landscaping on top of the landfill and provide adequate drainage so that no rainwater would seep through. They would then construct a slurry wall, which is a wall that runs down to parent clay and would cut off any leachates on their way to the Clinton River.

Now in the most recent Brownfield meeting in August the plan has changed again. Now REI proposes building on top of the landfill using pile foundations. Pile foundations are where they drill an auger (in this case) about 35 to 40 feet down and as they pull the auger out they pump in concrete. They are quick to point out the Home Depot at 12 and a half mile as an example. It was built on 20 yards of municipal waste and has passive gas vents that went below the surface and adjacent to the building there are methane vents which allow gas to escape from beneath the building.

The new goal is to take out less than 350,000 cubic yards of waste, which pleases some residents who were concerned about odor issues. This would take the clean-up time from a full year to only 3-4 months.

Now they want to install a bulkhead barrier that would cut off the storm sewer on their property and prevent any migration from getting to the Clinton River. This would then be rerouted to the local sanitary sewers. They would also cut the broken pipe that is currently leaking into the Clinton River.

REI could not be reached for comment but the unconfirmed rumor is that Target is considering buying the site. This may yet again change the plans for the site. Either way there remains the problem of regulating and enforcing environmental safety standards.

By Jason Tafilowski

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