Residents of St. Louis, Michigan are accustomed to finding dead blackbirds and robins in their backyards. The birds are constant reminders of the toxic chemicals that have contaminated the area’s soil.
In the last year, Matt Zwiernik and a group of volunteers have collected 29 dead birds in the residential area that surrounds the demolished Velsicol Chemical plant. Forensic study reveals the birds have been feeding on contaminated insects that live in the poisoned ground. Brain and liver abnormalities were observed in 12 of the 29 birds, and the mean total level of DDT in their brains was equal to 552 parts per million. A level of just 30 parts per million has been shown to be fatal to several bird species.
This section of St. Louis has been home to one chemical plant or another since the 1930s, inhabited first by Michigan Chemical and then by Velsicol. Velsicol manufactured the insecticide DDT as well as polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), a flame retardant, until 1977 when it was forced to shut down. The plant accidentally mixed PBB into livestock feed, setting off a wave of contamination that swept across the upper midwest.
In the end, 500 Michigan farms were quarantined and thousands of cattle, swine and sheep were destroyed. The number of chickens destroyed numbered in the millions.
Velsicol’s toxic legacy endures to this day, though Michigan taxpayers will be the ones to pay for it. A consent agreement in 1982 forced the bankrupt Velsicol to pay $15-20 million to the EPA for use in cleanup operations, but that will not cover the full cost of repairs. The residential cleanup alone is estimated to cost $12 million through 2015.
The EPA is currently removing soil from almost 100 residential yards adjacent to the Velsicol site, digging up to four feet deep in some places and replacing the yards with new soil and sod. Approximately 30,000 tons of toxic soil will be trucked to landfills this summer.
But that’s just the top of the bill. The EPA estimates that it will cost $45 million to dig a new well to replace the city’s water supply and upwards of $300 million to excavate the 54-acre Velsicol site.
One resident, Dana Skinner, thinks the agency is being too extreme. “All this for a few dead birds,” he told the Detroit Free Press. “it seems like it could be a waste of money.”
Matt Zwiernik disagrees. After collecting dead birds for the past 20 years, residents aren’t surprised by all the excavation. “I think it’s the rest of the world that’s shocked that there’s a situation in this day and age where a larger portion of the city has such contamination that birds are falling from the sky,” he said.
Total remediation costs for St. Louis are expected to cost nearly half a billion dollars.