Our Work

OUR LOCATION

We are located in the center of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan, primarily in Gratiot County. As shown on the map, the watershed for the Pine River begins west of Alma and St. Louis, Michigan, and then flows in an arc merging at Midland, Michigan (in neighboring Midland County, with two other rivers (the Chippewa and Tittabawassee), eventually flowing as the Saginaw River into Saginaw Bay, part of Lake Huron in the Great Lakes Basin of Canada and the United States.

The region is underlain by brine deposits that have supplied key ingredients for chemical manufacturers.  There is a small oil field in the region which in the 20th century supported several oil refineries, the last being one in Alma long known as Total Petroleum.  St. Louis, became home of Michigan Chemical Company (later Velsicol Chemical) whose waste disposal practices resulted in three sites on what the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) calls the national priorities list under the Superfund program.  Velsicol, Total Refining, other refiners and several manufacturing firms made the Pine River one of the most seriously polluted rivers in the country.  Michigan eventually placed the river on its highest level of health warnings related to fish consumption.  Velsicol was also responsible for the largest food contamination mistake in U.S. history, resulting in a flame retardant – PBB – entering the human food chain of millions of people.

The Pine River Task Force originated in 1998 initially to allow citizens to participate in an emergency EPA clean-up of DDT contamination in the Pine River, dumped by Velsicol.  As the Task Force learned of the complex relationship of river contaminants and their likely impacts on human health its focused expanded.

There are three communities that were especially impacted by the region’s contamination and have been a special focus of the Task Force: St; Louis, Alma, and Breckenridge Michigan.

ST. LOUIS

The settlement of St. Louis by Europeans began at a riverside location used by the Saginaw Chippewa people.  In the 1840s Lutherans from Germany established a mission here.  The town was incorporated in 1858. As a consequence of the pre-Civil War settlement, the city is one of the few in what was a northern frontier of the state to have sent young men off to the Civil war, a fact reflected in the city’s monument to the Union soldiers.  After the war, the mineral waters from under the city became a resource for spas that attracted visitors from across the country.  Then in the early 20th century those same waters became the resource for chemical manufacturing (Michigan Chemical/ Velsicol) and oil refining (McClanahan Refinery).  Eventually Michigan Chemical took over the refinery property, becoming the city’s largest employer after World War II.  However, a major shipping mistake in 1973, when Velsicol shipped a fire retardant composed of PBB instead of an animal feed supplement contaminated the food chain of the state, resulting in the plant’s closing in 1978.  In addition to the health and environmental consequences of the company’s actions, the plant was forced to close by the state devastating the local economy.  The city’s population fell from 4,100 in 1980 to 3,830 in 1990.  However, as part of the deal closing Velsicol, the state agreed to build prisons in town.   Accordingly, by 2020 the population (counting 3,000 inmates) has risen to 7,663.

St. Louis has an economy based in supplying the regional population with goods and services and some light manufacturing.  The city government has long supported the work of the Task Force and our monthly public meetings are held at St. Louis City Hall, 300 North Mill St. on the third Wednesday each month at 7:00 p.m. (until our recent move to Zoom meetings).

ALMA

Alma is immediately to the southwest of St. Louis along the Pine River.  In 2020 Alma has a population of 8,995, making it the largest city in the county.  It is a center for finance and trade for the surrounding agricultural, has a number of manufacturing facilities, especially supplying the down-state auto industry.  It is the counties health care center, with the largest hospital and many offices for medical professional.  It is also home to Alma College, a private liberal arts college founded by the Presbyterian Church and with an enrollment of 1,400. It also is home to a large progressive retirement facility owned by Michigan Masons.

Until 1999 the city was home to one or more refineries, the last of which had been owned by many years by the largest French oil company – Total.  In its last years, I was sold to Ultramar Diamond Shamrock (UDS) which in turn was purchased by Valero Petroleum.  The new parent firm decided to close the Alma facility.  The Pine River Task Force became involved in the closing because of the extensive contamination of the water table beneath the refinery and of the Pine River.  The Task Force also became involved in legal action related to contamination from a chromium plating facility, Oxford Automotive, and a waste recycling company, Alma Metal.

BRECKENRIDGE

With a population of about 1,300, the town contains one industry, a large bean and grain elevator since 1909. However, it has two links to the work of the Task Force.  In 1974 a cluster of Non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma disease was detected in Breckenridge. Ten cases were found in town between 1954 and 1973.  The age-adjusted average annual incidence was 12.2 times the expected rate. The discovery of this cluster led to several studies by experts from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.  

Northwest of Breckenridge, Velsicol purchased a small plot next to Bush Creek for burial of low-level radioactive waste.  Simply called the Breckenridge Site, this became a priority clean-up site after the formation of the Task Force. 

ELSEWHERE

Especially because of the massive food contamination accident caused by Michigan Chemical-Velsicol in 1973, people were impacted far beyond the county or the Pine River watershed.  The Task Force welcomes involvement and support from any person in the world.  Because we are in the Great Lakes basin, we have had several formal contacts with the Canadian-U.S. intergovernmental agency for the Great Lakes, the International Joint Commission.  We have also worked with health and environmental experts from as far away as South Africa.   We especially welcome the involvement of college and university students working in the region.   

PUBLIC AND PRIVATE STAKEHOLDERS

To help those unfamiliar with some of the institutions mentioned often in our work and throughout the website, we have here brief descriptions of the common ones.  We have divided our listings as follows:

Elected Officials at the National (Federal), State, and Local Levels

Government Administrative Agencies from the International, National, State and Local Levels

Private For-Profit Businesses

Colleges and Universities

Media

Elected Officials at the National (Federal), State, and Local Levels

            President: Donald J. Trump, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC 20500

            Senators (mail best sent to regional office, not to Washington, D.C.)

                        Senator Gary Peters, 124 West Allegan Street Suite 1400 Lansing, MI 48933

                                 Phone: (517) 377-1508

                        Senator Debbie Stabenow, Mid-Michigan Office 221 W. Lake Lansing Road

                                 Suite 100 East Lansing, MI 48823 Phone: (517) 203-1760

            Member House of Representatives (4th Congressional District)

                        John Moolenaar, 200 E Main St Ste 230, Midland, MI 48640; Phone (989) 631-

                                2552

Michigan State Government:

            Governor: Gretchen Whitmer, P.O. Box 30013 Lansing, Michigan 48909. Phone: 517-

                      373-3400 or 517-335-7858

            Michigan Senate: Senator Rick Outman, Box 30036. Lansing, MI 48909-7536. By

                     Phone: (517) 373-3760 or email: www.senatorrickoutman.com/contact/

            Michigan House of Representatives: Rep. James Lower, Anderson House Office

                    Building. S-1089 House Office Building. Lansing, MI 48933; Phone: (517) 373-

                    0834; email: JamesLower@house.mi.gov

Gratiot County Commission (Representing St. Louis): Jan Bunting, Phone: 989-681-3559; 204 N Main Street St. Louis, MI 48880

St. Louis City: Mayor James Kelly, 300 North Mill Street, St. Louis, MI 48880                                   (989) 681-2137 email: mayorkelly41@gmail.com

Government Administrative Agencies from the International, National, State and Local Levels

International Joint Commission: This is the Canada-U.S. Great Lakes agency.  The IJC was established in 1909 to oversee the boundary waters (any that cross the boundary – from the Great Lakes to rivers and streams).  It has two directors, one each appointed by the U.S. and Canadian government.  Much like the Pine River Task Force, it has concern with both the environment itself but also human health related to water contamination or water use,  While it may seem remote, representatives of the IJG have attended meetings with the Task Force.  The Great Lakes Office of the IJC is located at 100 Ouellette Ave., 8th Floor, Windsor, Ontario.

United States Government:

Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), is the primary U.S. government environmental agency and is responsible for the three Superfund sites in St. Louis: the Gratiot County Landfill, the Velsicol Burn Pit and the Velsicol Plant Site.  However, U.S. EPA has many programs other than Superfund related to environmental contamination and funds much environmentally related health research.  Most contact with EPA in Michigan is processed through the Region 5 office in Chicago.  For both the Burn Pit and the former Velsicol Plant Site, the Project Manager is Thomas Alcamo, who is based in Chicago but frequently visits the sites in St, Louis.  Mr. Alcamo’s email is alcamo.thomas@epa.gov; his phone number is (312) 886-7278. 

Center for Disease Control (CDC), is the primary U.S. government agency responsible for monitoring public health risks, including those related to the Superfund project.  The Agency for Toxic Substances Disease Registry (ATSDR), a division of the CDC, is funded under the Superfund program to conduct health assessments at sites, including those in St, Louis.  There are a number of specialized federal health research agencies with which we also work, collectively called the National Institutes of Health.  We have primarily worked with the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS).

 State Agencies

Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) is the state equivalent of the U.S. EPA.  Under the Superfund law, after clean-ups are completed, EGLE assumes responsibility for monitoring sites, which may require many years of maintenance before they are fully removed from Superfund.

Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (formerly the Department of Community Health – MDCH) has worked with us on a variety of issues growing from actual or potential exposures to contaminants from sites in the Pine River watershed.  An office within MDHHS is funded by the federal ATSDR to work specifically with Superfund health concerns.  We also work with DHHS on a variety of issues related to the Michigan PBB Registry, following up persons exposed to PBB and their descendants. 

Local (regional)

While there are no local government equivalent to U.S. EPA or EGLE, most public health services in the U.S. are provided by local health departments.  Because Gratiot County is a rural county with a small population, our local public health department is the multi-county Mid-Michigan District Health Department.  We have worked with them on a number of projects but especially with follow-up of the PBB exposed population.  The Gratiot County Office of the Mid-Michigan District Health Department is at 151 Commerce Drive, Ithaca, Michigan, 48847; phone 989-875-2400

Private For-Profit Businesses: Described here are those companies mentioned in various places in the website related to specific pollution problems or remediation.  Only those mentioned multiple times are described here.  Most have their own website and often have descriptions on sites such as Wikipedia, which can be checked for further information.

Michigan Chemical/ Velsicol: Michigan Chemical was founded in St. Louis in 1935 to produce chemical products from the brine under the community.  During World War II the company became a major producer of the pesticide DDT, used to protect troops and refugees in the war zones.  After the war, Michigan Chemical expanded into producing flame retardants based on polybrominated biphenyls (PBB) as well as processing rare earths.  In 1965, Michigan Chemical was fully purchased by Velsicol Chemical of Chicago, shortly before Velsicol itself was acquired by the Chicago and North Western Railway (C&NW).  Later C&NW became known as Northwest Industries and even later as Fruit of the Loom.  The company dumped large quantities of DDT wastes, radioactive residue from rare earth processing and PBB into the local environment.  They also made a catastrophic shipping error I 1973 that introduced PBB into the food chain of 8 million people.

Oxford Automotive (Lobdell-Emery) was an auto parts manufacturing company in eastern Alma along the Pine River.  They dumped wastes containing hexavalent chromium and perhaps PFAS used in chrome plating into the Pine River through a storm drain that entered the Horse Creek tributary of the Pine River in southwest St. Louis.  Oxford filed for bankruptcy and closed in 2004.

Total Refining/ Ultramar Diamond Shamrock (UDS)/Valero (formerly Leonard and Midwest refineries) operated on the east side of Alma on both sides of the Pine River.  They dumped large quantities of refinery wastes into the Pine River.  The refineries emitted a variety of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), semi-volatile organic compounds, heavy metals, sulfuric and hydrofluoric acids and other byproducts of oil refining into the air, groundwater and soil and surface waters of the local drainage basin. Benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene and xylene were detected in significant amount in water samples. In addition, hundreds of thousands of gallons of free product and benzene contaminated groundwater, as deep as 115 feet, is migrating off-site. At the creation of Superfund in 1980, the oil industry successfully lobbied to have refineries exempt from Superfund in exchange for paying the “Superfund tax.”  On a number of occasions the US EPA found the refinery violated other emissions regulations, especially for sulfur dioxide. Exposure to sulfur dioxide can impair breathing, aggravate existing respiratory diseases like bronchitis, and reduce the ability of the lungs to clear foreign particles. People with chronic lung and heart diseases, the elderly, and children are the most sensitive.

Jacobs Engineering Group not a polluter Jacobs, previously CH2M Hill has been the prime contractor for U.S. EPA remediating the Superfund sites in St. Louis.  Jacobs, in turn, often uses more specialized firms to complete components in assessment and remediation of sites.

Colleges and Universities: since its creation in 1998, the Task Force has received invaluable free technical assistance and support from a group of institutions of higher education. 

These institutions included:

Alma College: The four-year liberal arts college in Alma, about four miles from the Velsicol Superfund sites in St. Louis.  College students and faculty have volunteered for many years both before and after creation of the Task Force and have worked with the PBB Registry.   Several faculty and students have served in formal roles with the Task Force and have produced published reports and books on the environmental and human health problems resulting from the regions contamination.  Ed Lorenz, an emeritus professor, is Vice-Chair of the Task Force. The Alma College Library Archives has copies of many files related to contamination of the watershed and the work of the Task Force. 

Central Michigan University has had a number of faculty and students who have worked on projects related to contamination in the watershed and the human health consequences of contamination from Velsicol.  A faculty member, Brittany Fremion, and a recent graduate of CMU, Nikki Braybaw, serve on the Executive Committee of the Task Force.   Professor Fremion has directed the Michigan PBB Oral History Project, interviewing many people involved in the PBB Registry.  Many records related to the Task Force and the PBB accident are housed at the Clarke Historical Library at the university.

Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health has for many years provided technical assistance to the Michigan Department of Community Health (now Michigan Department of Health and Human Services) in maintaining the PBB Registry of people exposed in the 1970s.  Since 2011 Emory University has assumed primary management of the registry.  In partnership with the Task Force and a group of farm families exposed to PBB (the PBB Citizens Advisory Board) have jointly formed an advisory committee to Emory on PBB issues. 

Michigan State University, as the state’s land-grant university, has been engaged with the environmental and human health issues in the watershed long-before the PBB accident through current remediation research, especially impacts of residual contamination upon wildlife and what those impacts indicate about the need for further clean-up.  Ornithologist George Wallace in the 1950s and 1960s warned of the problems of DDT use.   MSU faculty have also provided initial support for efforts to secure major funding for health assessments of the consequences of the region’s contamination and also research on the economic impacts of the pollution in the watershed and what they reveal about the larger issues of economic sustainability.  MSU Press also has published books on the region’s contamination.  Reflecting the long-term engagement with DDT (produced by Velsicol) and Rachel Carson, MSU hosted with Alma College the 50th Anniversary celebration of Silent Spring in 2012.

University of Michigan faculty have been pioneers in assessing the environmental-health challenges from Michigan Chemical.  In 1935, the year the company opened, U of M natural resource scientists responded to a state request and completed an early study of fish kills in the Pine River.  Dr. Tom Corbett did the pioneering analysis of the toxicity of PBB and its presence in farm products after the PBB accident.  U of M health scientists also did the pioneering research on the “Breckenridge cancer cluster.”  More recently, scientists at the U of M School of Public Health have worked to expose lessons of the PBB accident for other exposures to persistent pollutants, including PFAS.

Media have covered pollution in the watershed for many years.  The PBB accident in the 1970s and its legacy resulted in coverage in major national newspapers and electronic media, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal and National Public Radio.  The statewide press, especially the Detroit media have given much attention to both PBB and the legacy and remediation of the other contaminants.  The global, peer-reviewed scientific press also has published much, especially on the health consequences of the contaminants.  Here we provide contact information on three local media that frequently cover the problems and remediation of the watershed’s contamination. 

The Morning Sun is a daily newspaper covering Gratiot County and Isabella and Clare counties to the north.  Frequently, the Sun reporter covering St. Louis has been Greg Nelson gnelson@medianewsgroup.com

The Gratiot County Herald is a weekly newspaper, especially reporting official notices of county government.

WCMU Public Media is the regional affiliate of the Public Broadcasting System and National Public Radio.  It is a service of Central Michigan University in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.  It has frequently covered news of both the environmental and human health concerns related to Velsicol and the work of the Task Force.