Chemical legacy lingers in town 30 years later
After the statewide PBB contamination, the chemical plant at fault, owned by a company now called Velsicol Chemical Corp., became a federal Superfund site due to contamination of a nearby river. An Environmental Protection Agency community advisory group was created in response to the cleanup. Ed Lorenz, an instructor at the nearby Alma College, chairs its legal committee.
Q: How did you get involved in the cleanup of the Michigan PBB crisis?
A: “Apparently, the Environmental Protection Agency has a procedure that says a community can have a community advisory group if there’s a major contamination cleanup in the area. We formed one of these back in 1998. We keep getting invited to train people around the country because we’re apparently the biggest and most effective, they say. We’ve met every month since Jan. 1998. About 25 to 30 people come every month year in year out to comment on what the EPA is doing. There’s an awful lot of interest. I became sort of an environmental expert. When I started out it was not my thing.
“I was living in Chicago in graduate school when this happened. I vaguely recall watching the news and seeing these cows getting shown in Michigan. It was so dramatic and bizarre. My field wasn’t environmental policy, it was public policy at Alma College. I went to this workshop at the Massachusetts Institute of Technlogy; there were people from all over the world. This guy in the middle of the room interrupted my introduction and said if we wanted to study problems in the American economy, we have to go to this guy’s hometown. It turns out, he knew about Michigan Chemical Corp. and how it was a disaster waiting to happen. I spent the whole time there talking to this guy and he gave me the history of it.”
Q: What impact did the book have 30 years ago?
A: “It spread the news about PBB beyond two places: the community the mistake was made that caused the problem and the diary farming community. The book also spread it beyond Michigan.”
Q: What was the most important lesson learned?
A: “On one hand, it’s that mistakes can be made and no one knows they’re made. No one was intending to ship the wrong material in the cattle feed system and contaminate the food chain.
“Also, agencies don’t always respond properly. There were plenty of warnings that this might happen. There were organizations, institutions, companies and universities that could have prevented this from happening. They didn’t intervene and they made mistakes. The [Michigan] Department of Agriculture took the position that they were going to protect the farmers more than consumers of food. For a few months, it allowed the contaminated animals to be processed, which made the early mistake get worse and worse.
“The reason the book is important is because she did a good job of describing all of those errors of organizations that were set up to protect us as people. It’s important to see that that can happen.”
Q: What led you to write Containing the Michigan PBB Crisis, 1973-1992: Testing the Environmental Policy Process?
A: “It was the 20th anniversary of the mistake. I was teaching in the area where the feed mistake started. Michigan Chemical Corp. was the company that made the contaminant that got into the food chain. As a result of the food contamination mistake, the company closed and lost its tax base. There was sort of a bitterness about the way the process had worked. Plus, there were people who were exposed to the contamination. There was the whole thing about the public health system failing to protect them.”
GREAT LAKES SUPERFUND SITES:
For more information on the Velsicol Chemical Corp. cleanup and other superfund sites in the Great Lakes region, check out the Environmental Protection Agency cleanup website.