Doubts about dump

Apr 14, 1999 at 12:00 am

Despite public outcry, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has relicensed a Gibraltar industrial landfill that critics say threatens the Detroit River.

The DEQ and the company involved admit there are problems, but say they do not threaten residents or the environment, and that the problems are being addressed.

The Gibraltar Landfill, which activists fear may be contaminated with dangerous pollutants such as cyanide and PCBs, ceased operating in 1996, a year before then-owner McLouth Steel Corp. went bankrupt. DEQ relicensed the landfill April 5 under its new owner, Gibraltar Land Corp.

The move sparked a mobilization of members of Friends of the Detroit River and local residents who say they’ve been pressing public officials for the past 23 years to either force the landfill into compliance with environmental laws or close it permanently.

The landfill is a little more than a mile west of the Detroit River, and sits between two county drains that lead to the river through the center of Gibraltar. The landfill’s critics say leachate – rainwater that has filtered through the waste – sometimes spills over the sides of the landfill and into those drains, ultimately poisoning the river. They say allowing more waste into the dump will displace even more leachate, making the problem worse.

DEQ and Gibraltar Land Corp. officials disagree, saying the Detroit Steel Corp. subsidiary is in the process of solving the landfill’s long-running problems.

In 1997, Gibraltar Land Corp. signed a consent order with DEQ allowing the company to reopen the landfill in exchange for making specified upgrades. One of the promised improvements was to control the leachate problem.

According to DEQ field reports obtained by the Metro Times, wastewater has continued to leak into nearby ponds during the past year. Reports show the wastewater – which contains pollutants washed from the waste was also threatening to enter one of the county drains.

DEQ environmental analyst Marta Fisher says the recent leaks are an improvement from past years, but that DEQ expects it will take GLC some time to get the problem completely under control.

Detroit Steel Corp. Vice President Matthew Wilkinson says GLC is draining 25,000 gallons of leachate daily from the dump and moving it to a treatment plant.

"I’m doing everything I can to be the solution to the problem," he says.

State Rep. George Mans (D-Trenton), in a March letter to DEQ Director Russell Harding, argued that the license should be withheld until the area had been tested for cyanide, which is used in some steel industry processes. He noted that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources expressed so much concern over the high level of cyanide at the site that in 1991 "the state ordered treatment facilities to be built in order to control, monitor and eliminate the problem."

Residents say they also worry about the possible presence of PCBs, a hazardous component of oil they say was dumped at the site in the early 1970s.

Wilkinson says most of the residents’ concerns about the landfill are based on false information.

DEQ geologist Jim Bakun says DEQ hasn’t found cyanide in at least three groundwater tests around the site over the past decade, with the last test in 1997.

DEQ’s Fisher says the department plans to test the landfill’s leachate and will follow with groundwater tests if cyanide is found. The company would be ordered to clean up the problem if cyanide were found in groundwater, she says.

Residents also say that trucks have been seen coming and going from the dump in the middle of the night for the past few years. The state attorney general’s office is investigating the allegation.

Fisher says if the leachate is getting into surface waters, it is in such small amounts that any resulting river contamination would be unnoticeable.

However, she admits DEQ is dealing with an unknown when it comes to the landfill’s contents.

"Potentially, there could be almost anything in there," she says.