During the renovation of the old Berkey & Gay furniture factory into The Boardwalk apartment-office complex, the contractors for the project excavated about 26,000 tons of contaminated soil from the site and dumped it at the nearby Monroe Avenue Water Filtration Plant and other locations.
When did this happen?
The removal of waste material from the Berkey & Gay site began in November 1999. The last solid waste was removed in November 2000 and liquid waste in December 2000. None of the contaminated soil removed from the site was dumped at a licensed disposal facility, therefore, the local environment’s exposure to this waste is an ongoing hazard.
Where did this happen?
The Berkey & Gay building (now known as “The Boardwalk”) is located north of downtown Grand Rapids along the eastern bank of the Grand River at 940 Monroe Avenue, N.W. The Monroe Avenue Water Filtration Plant, where most of the contaminated soil was dumped, is located about a half mile north of the Berkey & Gay building at 1430 Monroe Avenue, N.W., in the Creston Heights district.
What is this waste?
The old Berkey & Gay furniture factory was built atop “urban fill”. Urban fill is waste material the City of Grand Rapids used to fill in and level out the banks of the Grand River in the late nineteenth century. It included industrial wastes such as fly ash, cinders, and other debris that is typically contaminated with high levels of arsenic, lead, and mercury. In addition to this, the Berkey & Gay building was a center of manufacturing activity for over a century. Chemical wastes from furniture-making, painting, finishing, and plating operations were routinely dumped in the courtyards the old factory encompassed. The Berkey & Gay site is also bounded by a railroad corridor, a notorious source of petro-chemicals. All of these recognized environmental hazards combined to pollute the Berkey & Gay’s soil with two dozen hazardous substances in toxic concentrations, which made its soil a hazardous waste.
What is the evidence that these hazardous substances were in the soil?
In November 1999 the developers of The Boardwalk hired Superior Environmental Corporation to conduct a series of environmental tests of the Berkey & Gay site. Superior Environmental collected soil and groundwater samples from twenty-four different locations for laboratory testing. The results showed that almost all of the samples contained toxic concentrations of hazardous substances. Superior Environmental reported these results to the developers in December 1999 and also filed them with Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in February 2000. Consequently the State of Michigan certified the Berkey & Gay site as an environmentally contaminated “facility” under state law.
What does “toxic concentration” mean?
For the most part it means a hazardous substance is present at a level (established by the State of Michigan) that puts a person’s life or health at risk if he is in sustained direct contact with its medium – in this case, soil. It can also mean that the hazardous substance level exceeds safe drinking water or ambient air standards set by the state.
What is the hazard to me and my family?
If you were a worker at the Berkey & Gay site between November 1999 and November 2000, especially as someone involved in the excavation and removal of the project site’s soil, and you did not wear protective clothing, gloves, or a mask, you may have been exposed to dangerous levels of the hazardous substances contaminating the site according to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. In particular, the MDEQ warned The Boardwalk’s developers that the site’s workers had to be protected from breathing in phenanthrene that is released into the ambient air when the soil containing it is disturbed.
The Boardwalk project’s environmental consultant, Superior Environmental Corporation, also warned the developers that because of the direct contact hazard the soil presented to human life and health that all of the site’s soil had to be permanently isolated from any human exposure by a physical barrier. However, the developers never did this. The contaminated soil was left in large waste piles at the project site to be spread out by the wind and the rain into the surrounding area. These waste piles were then transferred to the Monroe Avenue Water Filtration Plant for disposal, where they remain exposed to the wind and the rain. Therefore, people living and working in the vicinity of the Monroe North corridor from late 1999 to the present may have been exposed – and may continue to be exposed – to the hazardous substances in that soil. The health consequences of this continued exposure have not yet been determined by either the State of Michigan or outside experts.
Presently the contaminated soil dumped at the Filtration Plant most likely poses a direct contact hazard, which can be avoided by not visiting the site. However, The Boardwalk developers dumped this contaminated soil at other locations, which they have refused to disclose to authorities. Therefore, the hazard those dumpsites present to the public is unknown.
Has the law been violated?
The Local Area Watch thinks so. Environmental citizen suits are pending against The Boardwalk developers, their contractors, and the City of Grand Rapids before both the U.S. Supreme Court (for violations of federal environmental statutes) and the Kent County Circuit Court (for violations of Michigan’s Hazardous Waste Management Act).
What has the government done to police this?
Unfortunately very little.
When The Boardwalk developers’ soil removal activities were first reported to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality in September 2000, the developers simply denied any such activity. As proof, they had their employees sign affidavits swearing that they had not removed soil from the Berkey & Gay site. On behalf of the developers, Superior Environmental Corporation incorporated these affidavits into a report for the MDEQ that purportedly explained how all the soil remained at the Berkey & Gay site.
The MDEQ has since then relied upon this report and the affidavits to take no action against The Boardwalk developers, despite the fact that:
1. Scientific analysis of the soil samples collected by the MDEQ from the Filtration Plant show that the soil dumped there was from the Berkey & Gay site;
2. There are hundreds of hours of surveillance videotapes recording hundreds of transports of contaminated soil from the Berkey & Gay site to off-site disposal locations;
3. Photographs showing that none of this contaminated soil remained at the Berkey & Gay site after its excavation;
4. An admission to a MDEQ criminal investigator by one of the project’s dump truck drivers that his affidavit contained false statements;
5. Superior Environmental filed a signed statement with the Kent County Circuit Court disavowing the validity of the report it had prepared for the MDEQ.
Who is responsible?
The Boardwalk developers are two Michigan limited liability companies called 900 Monroe L.L.C. and 940 Monroe L.L.C. These companies are owned by:
1. Fifth Third Bank;
2. National City Bank;
3. Thomas E. Beckering (owner of Pioneer Incorporated);
4. Daniel J. Helms and Diane Helms (owners of Helms Caulking Inc.);
5. David P. Mehney and Linda M. Mehney;
6. Susan L. Grant;
7. DMAC Inc. (which in turn is owned by James Dykema of Dykema Excavators Inc. and Scott MacGregor).
The contractors responsible from removing the contaminated soil from the Berkey & Gay site are Pioneer Incorporated and Dykema Excavators Inc. The contractor responsible from removing some of the liquid waste from the project site is Helms Caulking Inc. The contractor responsible for the project’s environmental quality is Superior Environmental Corporation.
How is the City of Grand Rapids responsible?
The City provided The Boardwalk developers with the primary dumpsite for the contaminated soil: The Monroe Avenue Water Filtration Plant.
The Filtration Plant was an old water treatment facility that the City shut down in the early ‘90s. In February 1999 then-Mayor Logie persuaded the City Commission to turn down a $600,000 offer for the Filtration Plant to sell it to Dykema Excavators Inc. for $400,000 on a land contract requiring only small annual payments for three years.
The City Commission did have one concern about selling the Filtration Plant to Dykema Excavators. The grounds of the Filtration Plant consisted mostly of large empty concrete water tanks – ready-made holes to dump all manner of waste into. The Commission wanted to ensure that Dykema Excavators did not dump any toxic waste into those tanks. Therefore, as a condition of the sale, it required Dykema Excavators to submit to an inspection regime in which the City Engineer would inspect any soil to be used to fill in the tanks at its source to establish that it was clean.
Then Dykema Excavators took possession of the Filtration Plant in May 1999. It immediately demolished the concrete water tanks and drilled holes through their bottoms. In June 1999 Dykema Excavators reported this to the City Engineer. The City then did an about-face and suspended the inspection regime, and Dykema Excavators and later Pioneer proceeded to dump about 20,000 tons of contaminated soil from the Berkey & Gay project site into the demolished tanks.
The City was alerted to this dumping by the National Response Center of the federal government, but it took no action. Later in closed sessions of the City Commission, then-Mayor Logie quashed attempts by the City Commission to investigate the dumping at the Filtration Plant in violation of the purchase agreement signed by Dykema Excavators. When the Local Area Watch tried to get the City of Grand Rapids to disclose the minutes of this closed session meetings, the City Attorney’s office destroyed them instead.
So, the City is responsible because it not only held title to the Filtration Plant while The Boardwalk developers were using it as an unlicensed landfill for hazardous waste, but also because it helped to conceal that unlawful use of the Filtration Plant.
What can I do?
First of all, if you believe you have been exposed to the hazardous substance that The Boardwalk developers released, you may want to consider seeing your doctor to determine if your health is at risk. Otherwise avoid the one known dumpsite, the Monroe Avenue Filtration Plant, until the waste there has been cleaned up or contained.
Second, contact your City Commissioner to find out why the City of Grand Rapids has refused to act in the best interests of the public in alerting everyone to the potential hazards of this illegal dumping and leading the way in solving the problem.
Finally, stay in the loop about this problem by visiting this site and sharing with us with any ideas, information, or concerns you have.