$17 million cleanup nears for Zephyr Oil refinery site along Muskegon River

$17 million cleanup nears for Zephyr Oil refinery site along Muskegon River

Source: http://www.mlive.com, January 25, 2014
By: John S. Hausman

The former Zephyr Oil site is finally on the verge of getting cleaned up after decades of petroleum pollution followed by more decades of snail’s-pace contaminant control.

It’s been a long time coming.

A vital first step – long needed, never attempted – has finally been done in the last two years: Mapping the worst hot spots of soil and groundwater contamination under the 70-acre site, and of contaminated sediment below wetlands and surface water in the vicinity. That mapping has cleared the way for a targeted, cost-effective cleanup of both problems.

“We now know where the risks are. We now know where the contamination is,” said Sara Pearson of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality’s Remediation Division.

State and federal environmental officials gave an update of progress Wednesday night, Jan. 22, at a public meeting hosted by the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership.

Making the speded-up cleanup possible is a $6 million Michigan Department of Environmental Quality grant approved by the Legislature in 2011. That money came through largely as the result of efforts by state Sen. Goeff Hansen and state Rep. Marcia Hovey-Wright, spurred by local activists including the watershed partnership.

That state money is being matched with federal funding from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Environmental Protection Agency in a 35/65 state-to-federal ratio. That means roughly another $11 million is coming from the feds.

None of that approximately $17 million has been touched yet in the last two years of mapping, testing and planning. It won’t be used for pilot studies about to be launched to determine the best cleanup methods.

“It’s for when the shovel is in the ground for actual remediation,” Pearson said.

Kathy Evans, staff support for the Muskegon Lake Watershed Partnership, believes the money will be enough to get the bulk of the job done, when combined with existing funding streams from the DEQ and other sources.

Why it matters

In 2004, the DEQ ranked the Zephyr site as the fourth most hazardous in Muskegon County based on its contaminated soil and groundwater.

The old Zephyr Inc./Naph-Sol Refining site at 1222 Holton Rd. in Muskegon Township, near the North Muskegon line, is on the north bank of the Muskegon River. The underground contamination zone also extends north from the former Zephyr property across M-120.

  • The oil in the soil has, over the years, seeped into the Muskegon River just upstream of where it empties into Muskegon Lake, and northward into Bear Creek. That has contributed to Muskegon Lake’s status as a Great Lakes Area of Concern, a federal list of toxic “hot spots.”
  • It’s a hazard to fish, wildlife and microorganisms.
  • It’s a nuisance to neighbors, with occasional gasoline odor problems and an unknown impact on their own soil, although neighbors are connected to city water.
  • And it has prevented redevelopment of what could be a prime business property that has rail and highway access and good utility connections.

The pending cleanup could solve the worst of those problems.

A timetable for the actual cleanup hasn’t been determined yet, but officials hope to have work under way within the next year or so.

Two prongs

1. Cleaning the soil underneath the “upland” portion of the site, the developable high-ground part fronting on M-120, falls to the DEQ and the Army Corps. That cleanup is expected to take care of the source of the contamination that continues to pollute groundwater and, in years past, surrounding wetlands and surface water.

Existing DEQ control measures, consisting of on-site treatment of groundwater pumped out with purge wells, have pretty much stopped the spread of oil contaminants off the property, Pearson said.

But it’s an excruciatingly slow way to actually clean up the site. She said the existing treatment system might not get the soil clean in her “grandchildren’s grandchildren’s” time.

To do that, it’s necessary to actually scoop out and remove the oil-soaked soil. And to do that at a bearable cost, it was necessary to map the contamination.

Using traditional methods of soil borings and lab testings was, also, agonizingly slow. But in late 2012, spurred by the prospect of the $6 million state grant for cleanup, the DEQ and Army Corps used a new laser-based technology that, in about six weeks, provided the necessary map.

2. Finding and cleaning up sediments under wetlands and other surface water falls to the DEQ and EPA, using the federal agency’s Great Lakes Legacy Act funding.

Mark Loomis of the EPA’s Great Lakes National Program Office said sampling in 2012 and 2013 found a number of spots contaminated with high concentrations of oil and metals including lead. The worst were in wetland areas around the north and south ends of the contaminated zone, with lesser amounts in Muskegon River and Bear Creek themselves.

The first priority, Loomis said, is a flooded section of the former Zephyr property known as the “fire suppression ditch.” Zephyr had used the ditch, which connects with the Muskegon River, to fight fires as they flared up at the refinery. A cleanup plan for that area will be designed this year, with actual remediation possible by the start of 2015, he said.

The next two “phase two” priorities are at the north end of the site, between the former refinery property and Bear Creek, and the old celery pond at the south end near Celery Lane.

How we got here

The Zephyr/Naph Sol Refinery from 1931 to 1968 produced gasoline, light heating oils and industrial fuels. After the refinery closed, from 1968 to the early 1990s, the site was used as an oil terminal and for bulk chemical storage.

There were numerous petroleum spills during the period Zephyr was in business – tens of thousands of gallons over the years, officials have estimated. With its location on a sandy plateau, any releases soaked right into the sand and through it into the water table.

Pollution control efforts over those decades were spotty.

Zephyr’s own groundwater filtration system installed in the 1980s failed to adequately protect the Muskegon River and Muskegon Lake. It also released petroleum fumes that annoyed neighbors.

The EPA launched an initial cleanup at the site in 1996 at the request of state officials. The government had to step in and begin the cleanup at taxpayers’ expense after the company’s owners escaped liability for the cleanup through bankruptcy.

From 1996 to 1998, contractors hired by the EPA and the U.S. Coast Guard removed 15 huge chemical storage tanks, 80,000 gallons of hazardous and flammable liquids, 43,000 tons of contaminated soil from 13 disposal lagoons and 2,300 tons of pipe and scrap metal.

There was much more to do. In 2000, contractors hired by the DEQ began a gradual groundwater treatment system of pumping out polluted water and treating it on site, then reinjecting the clean water back into the soil.

Even that slow process was endangered in early 2011 as funding dried up. The DEQ at that time stopped the reinjection and shut off more than half the 65 recovery wells that had been pulling contaminants out, in an effort to conserve money while continuing a limited cleanup as long as possible in an era of tighter budgets. DEQ officials said there was a possibility the cleanup would be halted altogether by 2012 because of a lack of money. That raised the prospect of renewed leakage into the Muskegon River and, ultimately, Muskegon Lake.

All that changed with the $6 million state grant.

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