By Coner Segren
Despite the findings of PFAS contamination at the former Buick City site in northeast Flint, so far the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) has not found any red flags for any specific substances in the drinking water in the neighborhoods around the site, representatives from RACER Trust reported at a public meeting held via Zoom Oct. 22.
RACER Trust, an environmental cleanup and redevelopment company for former General Motors properties, held the meeting to inform Flint residents of the environmental cleanup activities on the 413-acre Buick City site, which once boasted 30,000 employees in 24 buildings — making it one of the largest manufacturing facilities in the world. In its last years before it shut down entirely in 2010, it was the primary producer of the Pontiac Bonneville and Buick LeSabre.
The meeting was the company’s first to be held over Zoom due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. RACER is an acronym for Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response.
The event was moderated by Pat Spitzley, deputy redevelopment manager for RACER.
EPA, EGLE playing a role
Because Buick City was a site where hazardous waste was generated and managed, RACER’s cleanup operations are subject to direction and oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).
In 2018 concentrations of PFAS, which stands for “per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances” above State of Michigan standards were found at several locations around Buick City. PFAS is a common type of chemical runoff found in old manufacturing sites.
Focus is on identifying, containing PFAS
The stated goal of RACER Trust is to help communities impacted by the closure of GM facilities and help bring new investment
and jobs. RACER has had success in recent years, with companies like SpiralWeld and Lear Corporation building on the site. The main focus of RACER and EGLE since then has been to identify sources of the PFAS and other contaminants, and to contain them before they enter the sewer system, according to Al Taylor, of the Materials Management Division of EGLE. EGLE has been in charge of the cleanup since August 2020, when the EPA officially ceded the leadership role.
“Because of the identification a few years ago of PFAS at significant levels at the site, because of Michigan’s relatively stronger PFAS regulatory program, and because of the redevelopment aspects, it was determined that it would be better for EGLE to move into that lead position with EPA providing a strong backup role,” Taylor said. “EPA will continue to be an active partner.”
South end cleanup nears completion, north end next
The cleanup of Buick City is divided into two parts, north and south with Leith Street as the dividing line. According to Chris Black, the EPA project manager, the south end cleanup is moving forward on schedule and is largely completed. The north end cleanup plan has yet to be carried out due to the transfer of leadership from the EPA to EGLE. Black said, however, that now that the transfer is completed, EGLE will largely be carrying out the EPA’s proposed remedy for the site.
The PFAS concentrations have altered some of the cleanup decisions at the site, according to Black. The level of PFAS means certain landfills will not accept soil excavated from the site, he said. Soil coming onto the site from road renovations must also be subject to rigorous testing to make sure contaminated soil is not being dumped.
Drinking water at the site and adjoining neighborhoods under scrutiny
Despite the soil contamination, Black stressed that no drinking water has been impacted at the site.
“We want to be effective in making sure everything is safe for residents,” Black said, “and the cleanup standards focus on industrial reuse… those are our basic goals.”
Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) is also working with RACER and EGLE to provide public health support for communities surrounding the site.
“One of the biggest pathways of exposure of potential concern is drinking water. So, for this site and other PFAS sites we try and identify any residential wells anywhere near a site and of potential risk, and if we do identify residential wells, we sample those wells,” said Bill Farrell, the MDHHS’s manager of environmental site contamination.
So far, the MDHHS has not found any red flags for any specific substances in the drinking water in the neighborhoods around the site, Farrell said.
The MDHHS also carries out an Eat Safe Fish Program, where they take fish samples and analyze them for chemicals. The program then issues advisories if fish are found to have substantial levels of toxic chemicals, according to Farrell. As of now, MDHHS has not had any
red flags for any specific substances in the drinking water around Buick City.
RACER Trust was established by ruling of a U.S. bankruptcy court in 2011 as a result of GM’s bankruptcy in 2009. The company was given stewardship of 89 GM properties in 14 states, amounting to 44 million square feet of industrial space, 66 buildings, and roughly 7,000 acres. In Michigan alone the company has 36 environmental cleanup sites.
EVM staff writer Coner Segren can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.