Time Line

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St. Louis oldest municipal hydroelectric dam in the U.S., forms reservoir along which Michigan Chemical later built its factory

The Pine River watershed in northern Gratiot County Michigan has been an environmentally stressed community for more than a century, experiencing cycles of both growth and decline as a result of resource exploitation. In the first generation of European settlement, the region was deforested, accompanied by significant erosion and wild fires.1,2 As the forests were being depleted, the region tried to capitalize on mineral springs in the lower valley to create a resort center at St. Louis. Soon the brine beneath the ground was tapped for more lucrative if less environmentally friendly uses (involving chemical processing), which undermined the area’s potential as a vacation site. Brine extraction promoted the growth of the chemical industry, symbolized best by the opening in 1935 of Michigan Chemical Company (later Velsicol Chemical) in St. Louis. At the same time, oil extraction around the region promoted the growth of several small refineries in Alma and St. Louis, one of which survived until the end of the 20th Century as the Total Petroleum refinery in Alma. As with forestry, however, extraction of resources was both so complete and so reckless that first the chemical plant (1978) and then the last refinery (1999) shut down.

At the time of each of these changes, the region experienced economic and social shocks due to environmental exploitation. The region’s first settlers, the Saginaw Chippewa Indian Tribe lost most of their land, although retaining fishing rights on the river under the Treaty of the Saginaw, September 24, 1819 (7 Stat. 203). However, even those rights have been made meaningless by a complete ban on eating the contaminated fish from imposed on the river by state health officials in 1974. The owners and employees of the timber companies and then the tourist industry lost their assets as a result of later changes. Then in the 1970’s the closure of Velsicol Chemical deprived over 400 union members in St. Louis (population 4000) of their jobs. Beginning about the same time, Total Petroleum began a significant cut back in employment in Alma, associated with mergers in the oil industry and resource depletion. Headquarters moved from Alma to Denver in 1980. In the mid-1990’s the other office operations of Total moved to San Antonio. In 1999, the last 250 refinery workers lost their jobs.

The Task Force was incorporated in 1998 and has worked since then to restore the region’s environment and assist in assessing and developing clinical responses to health problems related to the contamination.  Below, we have a long list of years in which significant events in this story took place, often with links (in blue) to documents and images related to particular events.   The timeline is long and it begins with the early inhabitants of the community.  

BACKGROUND OF THE ACCIDENT (1819-1972)

YEAR /EVENT(s)

1819               

The Treaty of Saginaw is signed between the leaders of the Chippewa peoples and Territorial Governor Lewis Cass, representing the U. S. Government.  Under the treaty, in exchange for giving up land in the region for settlement, the Chippewa retain fishing rights in the river.  The treaty was not broken until the 1930s

1858               

St. Louis Incorporated

1929               

Oil discovered in region

1931               

Velsicol Chemical founded in Chicago by Joseph Regenstein

1934               

Midwest Refinery opens in Alma on Pine River

1935               

Michigan Chemical incorporated; producing ethyl bromine for petroleum refiners and other chemicals for road dust control and the pharmaceutical industry & salt for both human and animal use McClanahan Refinery opens on south end what is of later Velsicol plant site Saginaw City Council unanimously calls on state to protect Pine River Research team from University of Michigan documents water pollution problems of the Pine River

1937               

Study published in Journal of Industrial Hygiene and Toxicology warning of health danger of compounds such as DDT

1939

Leonard Refinery purchases and moves McClanahan to Alma, Michigan Chemical acquires the McClanahan property

1941               

121 St. Louis Citizens file complaints about Michigan Chemical contamination

1944               

Michigan Chemical begins DDT production for use by military to protect troops and refugees from malaria during World War II

1945               

The New Yorker publishes a story warning of the dangers of DDT use. When war ends, Michigan Chemical sells DDT to United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration for dusting refugees to protect from malaria; also full production of magnesium oxide animal feed supplement begun.

1946               

The New Republic publishes a story warning of the problem of resistance developing from mass use of DDT

1947               

The New York Times Magazine runs story about the growing DDT resistance problem; Michigan Chemical begins flame retardant production

1948               

Nobel Prize for Physiology awarded to Paul Müller for discovery of DDT use against arthropods

1954               

George Wallace, Michigan State University ornithologist begins DDT studies

1955               

Michigan Department of Natural Resources in “A Biological Survey of the Pine River” documents extensive DDT contamination linked to Michigan Chemical; Midwest Refinery along Pine River purchased by Leonard Refinery; rare earth production begins (and disposal of low-level radioactive wastes from that process)

1957               

Michigan DNR issues another negative report on the Pine River

1958               

DDT production ends

1960               

George Wallace testifies about DDT poisoning before the U.S. House Subcommittee on Fisheries and Wildlife; threatened with termination by Michigan State, defended by Michigan Congressman John Dingell

George Wallace, the ornithologist

1962               

Rachel Carson completes Silent Spring; Velsicol threatens a law suit against the publisher; American Medical Association and the American Chemical Society join in attacking Rachel Carson’s ‘hysteria’

1964               

Velsicol owned 50.5% of Michigan Chemical

1965               

Velsicol completes purchase of Michigan Chemical and then is acquired by the Chicago and North Western Railway.

1966               

Velsicol pays for publication of That We May Live attacking Rachel Carson

1967               

Michigan DNR issues another negative report on Pine River, followed up in 1970

Chemical disposal by Molotov cocktail in the Gratiot Golf Course

1968               

Chicago and North Western Railway buys the Reading Railroad (as in the Monopoly game) which owned Fruit of the Loom underwear.  The firm changes its name to Northwest Industries but keeps the Michigan Chemical name on the old Michigan Chemical plants.

1971               

Michigan Chemical begins full production of flame retardants based on PBB

THE ACCIDENT AND A RESPONSE (1973-1997)

Shooting cows in mid-1970s after contamination with PBB

YEAR/EVENT(s)

1973               

PBB accident; Michigan Chemical ships one or more truckloads of PBB in place of Mag-Oxide to Farm Bureau Services feed supply facility in Climax, Michigan

Poorly stored bags of Nutrimaster and Firemaster in Michigan Chemical warehouse.

1974               

Contamination of farm animals with PBB discovered and Michigan Chemical identified as source; quarantine of some farms begins and first cattle euthanized and buried in Kalkaska; Dr. Tom Corbett begins research on PBB in farm products and Dr. Irving Selikoff begins work on PBB in humans; Breckenridge  cancer cluster studies begin

1975           

Dr. Alpha Clark McBain, MI confirms PBB causing animal health problems.    

Burying bodies of PBB contaminated cows.

1976               

Michigan PBB Registry established by Michigan Department of Public Health (later MDCH and

MDHHS) to track at least 4,000 exposed people; Michigan files a lawsuit against Velsicol

1977               

Thames Television (British) runs documentary “The Poisoning of Michigan”

1978               

Velsicol closes Michigan Chemical plant in St. Louis and begins negotiations with US EPA and Michigan Department of Natural Resources on settlement; CBS delays showing “Slaughter,” TV dramatization of PBB accident, until after elections so as not to influence outcome

Demolition of the Michigan Chemical-Velsicol plant about 1980; to be buried on the old plant site.

1980               

Superfund (CERCLA) passed by Congress

1981               

Bitter Harvest film opens about the PBB accident

1982               

The Consent Judgment is signed between Velsicol and federal and state officials

1983               

Former Velsicol plant site, Gratiot County Landfill and Velsicol Burn Pit – called the Gratiot Golf Course site) become Superfund sites (except, Velsicol promises to remove contamination at burn pit so it is delisted from National Priorities List (NPL); Michigan DNR begins fish sampling in river, followed up in 1985, 1989, and 1994 and 1995, showing increasing DDT uptake

1984               

Burial of old plant completed and St. Louis sites become ‘dormant,’ with tombstone warning of chemical and radioactive dangers of old plant site; Bill Farley buys Northwest Industries with borrowed money, renames it Fruit of the Loom and ‘sells’ Velsicol to managers, who refuse to take possession of firm’s seven sites, locations of worst pollution, including three Michigan sites: the old plant site, the burn pit, and the Breckenridge radioactive waste site

Labeling St. Louis forever as a contaminated town.

1988               

ATSDR preliminary report warns of fish contamination and human health exposures

1991               

Former workers settle lawsuit with Velsicol out-of-court; USEPA requests help from US Army Corps of Engineers to study DDT in river

1992               

First Alma College assessment of policy failure published and shared with USEPA

1993               

ATSDR reports critically on functioning of Velsicol’s containment of contamination at plant site and notes river fish have unacceptable DDT levels; longer Alma College policy assessment published and shared with US EPA

1994               

Michigan DNR fish sampling reveals doubling of DDT levels since 1989

1996               

Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (former DNR) staff report on fish contamination in impoundment after 1994 and 1995 sampling

1997               

U.S. EPA holds public meeting in St. Louis to announce problems with river

THE TASK FORCE ERA (1998-        )

Group picture of Task Force founders 1998

YEAR/EVENT(s)

1998               

Task Force formed; US EPA begins planning emergency removal action in river; Velsicol buys $100 million environmental insurance from AIG; Fruit of the Loom buys another $100 million

1999               

Emergency removal action begins; Total Petroleum closes; Task Force applies for grant from NIEHS to study infant exposures; Fruit of the Loom files for bankruptcy

2000               

Task Force files claim against Fruit of the Loom in bankruptcy court for $100 million; Task Force demands Justice Department public meeting on Total ettlement and receives $13 million Supplemental Environmental Project for clean-up of Horse Creek and other projects; EPA begins planning larger removal of river sediment

Removal of sediments expands

2001               

Task Force files second human health grant proposal with NIEHS; after rejection, CAG demands CDC respond to local needs (see 2005)

2002               

Task Force secures legal help from University of Michigan School of Law in bankruptcy claim; law students win Task Force help with natural resource damage claim filed by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration; gets Justice Department to hold public hearing in St. Louis on Fruit of the Loom settlement; Fruit of the Loom settles for $42.5 million for remediation of seven sites nationally, but including the Breckenridge site and the plant site in St. Louis; trust established through the US Dept. of Justice to ‘own’ sites and work on remediation with US EPA; migration of contaminants in the form of Non-aqueous Phase Liquids (NAPL) and Dense Non-Aqueous Phase Liquids (DNAPL) from the plant site toward the river verified  

2004               

Horse Creek remediation under Total supplemental environmental project finished

Murray Borrello sampling Horse Creek sludge

2005               

para-Chorobenzinesulfonic acid (pCBSA) found in St. Louis drinking water, a DDT by-product; Task Force compels ATSDR and CDC to participate in community health conference at Alma College; Task Force files and wins bankruptcy claim against Oxford Automotive for hexavalent chromium dumping; Wall Street Journal runs story defending DDT, publicizing petro-chemical industry lobbying for DDT and using Rachel Carson as symbol of over-regulation

2006               

St. Louis sues to overturn bankruptcy settlement and recover funds for a new water system          

2007               

USEPA stated that the 1982 containment system for the plant site had failed and they were beginning a formal process of determining a remedy

Recruiting for DDT Conference 2007-2008

2008               

U.S. Department of Justice sides with Fruit of the Loom and Velsicol vs. St. Louis water system lawsuit; Task Force and Alma College host Eugene Kenaga International DDT Conference

2009               

Pine River Statement on DDT published; discussed at Stockholm Convention meeting

Pine River Statement

2010               

Velsicol Burn Pit returned to Superfund National Priorities List (NPL – it had been delisted in 1983 after Velsicol claimed it had brought all contamination to the plant site for burial

2011               

St. Louis won lawsuit for new water system

2012               

USEPA holds public hearing and finalizes Record of Decision to plan remediation of Velsicol plant site; initial contact made with Emory University PBB team; clean-up at Breckenridge site concluded; remediation began of hot spots in the neighborhoods near the plant site -the Adjacent and Neighboring Properties (ANP)

Red fences around hot spots across 9 block area

2013               

Task Force hosts with Emory University first joint PBB health screenings; launched new dead bird egg/nest study

Testing dead birds

2015               

New water system comes on-line for St. Louis with Gratiot Water Authority; St. Louis High School athletic field emergency clean-up and residential soils clean-up completed

2016               

“Birds Falling from Sky” articles appear in press about St. Louis contamination; Task Force hosts with Emory University and Alma College, Intergenerational Risk Conference; complete remediation of residential soil contamination in 12 blocks adjacent to old plant site

2018               

Thermal treatment of wastes on old plant site begin; PBB Oral History Project funded; PBB screenings held in Fremont and Cadillac

2019               

US EPA begins study of flood plain remediation; EPA completes first phase of thermal treatment at the plant site and finishes installation of second phase thermal treatment electrodes; PBB screenings held in Bad Axe, Fremont, and Lansing; new sampling for DDT at high school fields found some high spots; PBB to PFAS orientation held for legislators in Lansing.

2020               

Conference held at University of Michigan From PBB to PFAS; Phase two thermal treatment begins; NAPL collection during Phase II much larger than anticipated; Task Force requests formal evaluation of why unanticipated NAPL at site

Field of electrodes to boil-off contaminants under old plant site cap.