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Kalamazoo residents struggle with EPA over "Mount PCB"

People in Kalamazoo are rallying to get rid of a major dump site that contains cancer causing waste.

Imagine decades’ worth of wood pulp and grey clay waste from the paper mill industry. There are 1.5 million cubic yards of it and it’s laced with polychlorinated biphenyls or PCBs.

Now, plop it in the middle of a neighborhood.

Sarah Hill lives a little more than a mile away from what neighbors have dubbed "Mount PCB."

“What you see right now is a sheet pile wall that’s holding back a constructed mountain of PCB-contaminated materials and keeping it from dropping with gravity down into the Portage Creek. And the EPA said at the time, this is temporary, we will come back with a permanent removal approach," Hill said.

Mount PCB is more formally known as the Allied Landfill. One of Hill's concerns is the site was never built as a landfill; there's no liner underneath it.

"One of the jokes that we tell amongst ourselves is let’s try and get a license for it and see what the EPA would do. They wouldn’t accept land-filling any kind of material there because it sits on top of an aquifer, it sits next to a creek; all the kinds of things that would violate its own rules," Hill said.

The real human health risk from PCBs comes from eating fish from the Kalamazoo River. Over time, the toxic chemicals build up in fatty tissue in fish. For decades, there have been guidelinesabout how many and what type of fish to eat to avoid overexposure in the Kalamazoo River. PCBs can cause cancer, and other health effects.

This site is just a portion of the contamination that stretches along 80 miles of the Kalamazoo River, all the way to Lake Michigan. The Environmental Protection Agency has been cleaning up this so-called Superfund site for more than a decade.

Legacy pollution

Paper mills began to dominate the river valley in the late 1800s. But in the 1950s, some mills started recycling carbonless copy paper – commonly used for invoices or credit card receipts. In the 1960s, that paper contained PCBs.

Dick DeVisser grew up in Kalamazoo near one of the mills and still lives nearby.

“Of course the rotting paper fiber was not the most pleasant stuff to smell. It didn’t seem to be hazardous at least we didn’t think so. And it smelled like jobs so we tolerated it," DeVisser said.

By 1971, production of copy paper with PCBs ended once people realized how toxic the stuff was. But it kept getting recycled at paper mills along the Kalamazoo Riveryears later.

Companies weren’t allowed to just dump the waste after the Clean Water Act passed. DeVisser remembers the companies created big lagoons full of waste instead. 

“With the sun and so on, exposure to the air, the top would crust over; much like ice on a pond in the winter time. And us kids were erratically foolish in those days and we would walk out on that crust. And I remember one of my friends falling in and we had to fish him out from under that layer of pulp. It’s a wonder he lived to tell it," DeVisser recalls.

The debate about what to do with "Mount PCB"

City officials are worried the pile of PCBs will leach into the aquifer that supplies the drinking water for more than 120,000 people.  

"So, you’re going to leave PCB contaminated material. You’re going to put a monitoring well there. What happens if you find PCBs?" Kalamazoo Public Services Director Brian Merchant wonders. 

"All of the sudden you’re in reactionary mode. Then you’re in a cleanup mode and you’re not in a situation where you prevented anything," Merchant said.

DeVisser and city leaders want the EPA to remove all the toxic material and send it to a landfill that can handle it.

“It’s about the money, the bottom line today is it’s about the money," DeVisser said.

Here's DeVisser talking about the EPA's plan:

Total removal is the most expensive option, and the paper company that owned this site went bankrupt.

So now there’s only about $50 million in a trust fund to clean up this site. The EPA estimates it’ll cost $366 million; more than seven times that amount to remove the contamination. The agency told the city in March it’s likely to consolidate and cap the Allied landfill. That’s what they did on sites upstream.

“Well, upstream is an unincorporated area. Hardly anybody lives there," said Gary Wager, executive director of the Kalamazoo River Cleanup Coalition.

"There’s plenty of deer but they don’t vote, and they don’t carry signs and raise hell. So they were able to get away with that," Wager said.

The coalition is planning a big march on Wednesday to show the EPA they’re not backing down.

Here, Wager talks about the EPA's current plan:


The city wants the EPA to consider an offer from a landfill in Wayne County, one of only a handfull of landfills in the country that can handle major waste like PCBs. The company says it can remove the toxic material for $120 million, a third of the cost the EPA has quoted.

"Can they remove it for $120 million? I don’t know," Merchant said, "I don’t think it’s going to cost $366 million though. We’ve got some major differences we’ve got to talk about."

The EPA stresses it has not made a final decision about the Allied site.

It expects to issue a feasibility study in the next month or two. After that it’ll have public hearings and issue a final decision. An EPA official said the agency would like to begin work on the site in the fall.

Last week, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, Sen. Carl Levin, and Rep. Fred Upton sent a letterto the EPA to ask the agency to strongly consider permanent removal of the PCB-contaminated waste.

This story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institutes for Journalism & Natural Resources.

Lindsey Smith is a Peabody Award-winning journalist currently leading the station's Amplify Team. She previously served as Michigan Public's Morning News Editor, Investigative Reporter and West Michigan Reporter.
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