Fly ash, that is. Over the past ten years there have been a number of construction projects along Monroe Avenue between Lyon and Leonard Street. The convention center, Sixth Street Bridge park, the Wolverine Brass Building, and the Boardwalk to name some of them. Most of them entailed the excavation and removal of the underlying soil, and there lies a problem.
Monroe Avenue used to be called Canal Street for a reason. In the nineteenth century there was a canal that ran along the east bank of the Grand River to circumvent the rapids that used to churn the waters until the construction of the Sixth Street dam. As the heyday of the lumber barons passed and furniture manufacturing became king in Grand Rapids, the canal and the low spots along the east bank were filled in to create a factory district along Monroe Avenue. The fill used in that era was industrial waste that included materials like fly ash. These wastes were contaminated with high levels of arsenic, mercury, and lead.
Atop of all this hazardous waste, the factories along Monroe Avenue dumped their wastes. Some of these factories, like the old Berkey & Gay furniture factory which was renovated and re-opened as The Boardwalk in 2001, had courtyards in the middle of them. These were open-air fields into which painting, staining, and varnishing wastes were dumped onto the ground or into pits. A century of industrial pollution added to the earlier contamination and made the soil along Monroe Avenue extremely toxic. In some places, according to assessments by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), it was even dangerous to breathe air that was exposed to this soil.
Because of this, the properties along Monroe Avenue were deemed to be brownfields -- i.e., severely contaminated -- and developers could not obtain financing to redevelop them. The reason was because a new owner of a brownfield could be held liable for its contamination even though he did not cause it. The perverse of effect of this draconian liability was that developers and financiers avoided these urban brownfields and focused instead upon developing suburban and rural greenspaces. So, in 1994 the Michigan legislature changed the law concerning liability to encourage the redevelopment of moribund brownfields. Now, the new owner of a brownfield would not be liable for its contamination provided that he does nothing to cause its release into the environment.
The new law worked, and the redevelopment of Monroe Avenue began. At the same time, the MDEQ made an informal policy decision that it would not actively enforce the new law in urban areas, which still imposes requirements upon brownfield developers to handle contamination with "due care" to prevent people and the environment from being exposed to it. Thus, corners began to be cut by developers. Instead of applying for brownfield tax credits to help pay for the cost of lawful isolation or removal of contamination, they skipped that expense altogether by treating brownfield soil as though it were unregulated clean fill.
The developers of The Boardwalk project at 940 Monroe Avenue took full advantage of this lax enforcement regime. The project site sat atop the most severely polluted soil along Monroe Avenue. Its soil was laced with two dozen hazardous chemicals and metals in concentrations so severe that the soil was actually dangerous to touch. (See "Poison" for details.) Nevertheless, the Boardwalk developers treated the material as though it were clean fill, deliberately and recklessly exposing their workers, their neighbors, and the general public to the toxic wastes in it. In the end they dumped about 20,000 tons of this waste into the empty tanks of the nearby Monroe Avenue Water Filtration Plant and another 6,000 tons at undisclosed sites in the Grand Rapids vicinity. (To give you an idea of how much waste this is, if piled in one place it would form a cube nine stories tall!)
After several complaints about this illegal dumping of contaminated soil, the MDEQ under pressure from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency finally stepped in to investigate in November 2000. Unfortunately, the MDEQ's investigation was hindered by false affidavits, phony test results, and a now-disavowed expert environmental report. The matter now lies in Kent County Circuit Court. Fortunately, the news of the MDEQ's investigation stopped this illegal dumping trend from snowballing. Immediately afterwards, the Convention and Arena Authority assured the public that that its contractors were properly handling the contaminated soil underlying the site of the new DeVos Place convention center and that the contractors have obtained an insurance policy to guarantee their compliance.
Less fortunate was the decision of the Grand Rapids Press to pull the plug on its new printing facility slated for construction on Monroe Avenue immediately north of I-196. Now that the jig was up and contaminated soil could not be passed off as clean any longer, apparently brownfield tax credits were insufficient incentive for the Press to rehabilitate that particular brownfield. So the Press built its new plant on a greenspace out in Walker.
(Just one more reason Press publisher Danny Gaydou and editor Mike Lloyd have been loathe to give anything but passing coverage to Toxic Towers dumping scandal.)
That's today's history lesson, kids!