EPA hopes Michigan waste cleanup settlement will serve as US model

When it comes to multimillion-dollar cleanups of hazardous waste sites, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) often has had to sue culprit companies to get them to part with the dollars.

But the EPA's recent $38.5 million cash, goods, and services agreement with the Chicago-based Velsicol Chemical Company is the largest such settlement yet from any one company and grew out of several years of negotiation rather than a court suit.

The EPA hopes it will serve as a national model for the job of cleaning up the nation's worst hazardous waste sites.

At issue in the Velsicol case are four dump sites in central Michigan contaminated with such toxic chemicals as PBB (polybrominated biphenyls) and DDT. The former Michigan Chemical Company, owned by Velsicol, produced the fire retardant PBB as well as a chemical additive used in livestock feed in the early 1970s at its plant site near St. Louis, Mich.

In what is generally considered the worst agriculture poisoning disaster in United States history, the PBB was inadvertently mixed with the feed in 1973. Some 1.5 million chickens and close to 40,000 cattle, sheep, and pigs that ate the feed had to be destroyed.

The State of Michigan for several years also has monitored health effects on individuals exposed to substantial amounts of PBB. Many of these people, including farmers, have filed suit to recover damages from Velsicol. And Farm Bureau Services Inc., an agency that sold some of the feed, has already paid out more than $40 million in damages, and recently filed for bankruptcy to avoid making further payments.

Some would argue that the worst of the damage already is done. But toxic contamination of the plant site, affecting the recreational Pine River which borders it on three sides, and three nearby dump and storage sites continues to be a problem. One concern is that ground water beneath, and dust carried to, nearby home sites, bordering the plant site on the fourth side, may be contaminated.

Though Velsicol has had a reputation among environmentalists as uncooperative and tough to deal with, the company decided to come to grips with the issue and hired a new management team in 1979, including John Rademacher, a former EPA official and longtime environmentalist, as vice-president.

Velsicol officials then approached the State of Michigan, saying they wanted to work out a settlement. When those bilateral talks broke down in early 1980, Michigan asked the Chicago-based regional office of the EPA to become a party and take the lead in negotiations.

As EPA lead negotiator Dale Bryson recalls it, the talks were diverted at the start on a number of side issues and bogged down for a time on the extent and type of cleanup required. Velsicol proposed putting a clay top and walls on the river sides of the plant site. The EPA held out for walls on all four sides.

Even as the talks progressed, Velsicol proceeded to clean up two of the subsidiary sites.

''That's unprecedented,'' Mr. Bryson says. ''Most companies won't turn a spade of dirt until the ink is dry.''

The detailed solution, which EPA considers ''state-of-the-art technology'' and hopes will serve as a forerunner for others, calls for burying the waste material within heavy clay walls.

Though the State of Michigan agreed to drop its 1975 $120 million damage suit against Velsicol in exchange for the cleanup, the company remains liable for individual damage suits.

''It was the recognition of responsibility on the company's part that was the driving force behind the whole agreement,'' insists EPA regional administrator Val Adamkus.

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