Chemical pollution forces out nonprofits


An environmental threat has pushed two nonprofits from their buildings, and that could be just the beginning.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found high levels of a chemical called tetrachloroethylene, or PERC, at 401 Hall SE, 1168 Madison SE and 1170 Madison SE Apt. 2. In a May 19 letter, the Kent County Health Department told tenants to evacuate until the buildings can be deemed safe.

Betsy Nightingale, federal on-scene coordinatorwith U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Region 5, announced at a June 15 town hall meeting that she wants to test about 60 properties lining Hall Street around Madison Avenue, reaching all the way to Lafayette Avenue.

Tetrachloroethylene, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, is a manufactured chemical widely used for dry cleaning fabrics and degreasing metal. It also goes by the name perchloroethylene, PERC or PEC. The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services calls it a possible carcinogen. The acceptable level of PERC in the air is no more than 6 parts per billion. Testing showed levels between 25 and 50 ppb.

The immediately affected addresses include The Red Project, Seeds of Promise and tenants in two residential units.

Health Department Marketing and Communications Director Steve Kelso said the displaced renters were relocated to housing paid through a Michigan State Housing Development Authority grant. He declined to give details, citing privacy. He said the situation is not the fault of residents or the building’s owners.

Red Project, 401 Hall, provides services to prevent HIV, hepatitis C and drug overdoses, along with care and case management. Seeds of Promise, 1168 Madison, is an urban community improvement initiative.

“Everybody has been very helpful and very cooperative,” said Steve Alsum, Red Project executive director. “The frustration with this situation is it’s very new, and I don’t know if there’s well-established guidelines to deal with the situation.”

Nightingale said she thinks the chemical problem came from a former dry-cleaning business at 413 Hall St. SE, a space revamped by LINC Community Revitalization in 2014. She said PERC issues surrounding dry cleaners are not uncommon: Chemicals spill into the ground, get into the soil and make their way into groundwater before vapors seep through foundation cracks.

The EPA has put in four carbon filtration units to capture those chemicals and improve the air quality. Nightingale said the team has also put in an abatement system and is working to seal basement walls. The primary contracting work has been done through St. Louis, Missouri-based Environmental Restoration LLC.

The work is being paid for through the EPA and the cost is budgeted at about $100,000, she said, although she thinks it will end up being higher.

“We identified a target area for additional vapor intrusion based on existing data where we knew groundwater contamination existed,” she said. “We know groundwater flows directly to the west, basically, and the DEQ has data south of Hall Street showing they’re not seeing contaminated ground water, soil or gas, so we’ve for now ruled out the area south of Hall Street.”

There are a few areas that break over Hall Street that Nightingale wants to test just to be sure, and she also wants to check a few areas east of the original ground zero — the site of the former dry cleaner.

‘Mostly a precaution’

About 46 of the 60 properties are rentals, she told 40 or so people gathered at the town hall meeting hosted by LINC.

“About 50 percent of the houses are granting us access (for testing), and I’m hoping after this meeting we’ll get a few more,” she said.

Nightingale stressed that the testing is mostly a precaution and she hopes it will reveal that the contamination is not severe or even present, meaning neighborhood evacuations would be unlikely.

Many residents at the meeting raised concerns about the cost of possible evacuation or lowered property values.

If properties need ongoing remediation, Nightingale said the fan-powered systems are estimated to cost an extra $75 a year in electricity.

Kelso said if a mass evacuation of 60 properties were required, housing would be handled on a case-by-case basis.

He and Nightingale said they understand why residents are concerned.

“This (incident) is not a common occurrence by any means,” Kelso said. “I have only been here a year, but no one can remember an incident quite like it.”

Although there’s no final timeframe on when the two nonprofits can move back in, the filtration systems are working around the clock. Nightingale said she hopes the air will be suitable in less than a month but can make no guarantees.

Challenge for clients

A month is a long time for The Red Project, which has moved back into its original home, the Grand Rapids Pride Center in Eastown, Alsum said. Since clients rely on access to its services, there could be serious public health consequences if The Red Project can’t meet clients at 401 Hall.

“The services being most impacted are the prevention services — so folks who need syringe access, or need access to safer sex supplies, or need access to a recovery coach who can help them get into treatment to get clean,” Alsum said.

“Our programming is meeting people where they’re at, and a lot of our clients can live chaotic, not-planned-out lives, so it’s important that we be where they expect us to be. … And prolonged absence of us not being in that building could be worse than the actual exposure to PCE.”

The Red Project has 14 or 15 staff members who could’ve been affected by PCE, Alsum said.

“Everything we’ve heard is that it’s a very mild carcinogen. We’ve all been tested at the Health Department. It’ll be about three weeks before we get those results back, but there’s been no acute signs of any health problems,” Alsum said.

The Red Project is looking into insurance and liability in case it is forced to permanently vacate. Either way, “this is certainly going to cost us financially,” Alsum said.

Although he’s grateful and impressed with how quickly the DEQ and EPA have responded, he’s wondering why the problem wasn’t addressed before The Red Project moved in.

“One of the questions I think should be potentially looked into is why none of this testing took place sooner,” he said. “We moved into this building a year ago. When we were moved in, we were not notified of this issue whatsoever.”

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