Article courtesy of Cory Smith | January 30, 2015 | | Shared as educational material
BELDING — Locked behind a chain-link fence in the very center of town sits an idle piece of property that has become the epicenter of public frustration.
On the surface, the former White Consolidated Industries/Electrolux complex at 100 E. Main St. is ready to be embraced as a public park.
But buried beneath that surface — 24 inches, to be exact — is a century-old history of industry, complete with contaminated soil, concrete slabs and, deeper still, contaminated ground water.
Within the past year, the buildings were demolished and 2 feet of fresh topsoil covered any reminder of the towering historic complex that once fueled the city’s industry.
In an effort to reach the conclusion of the consent judgment between the city of Belding and Electrolux — and the prospect of a future city park on the 4.8-acre riverfront property — the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) is now reviewing a Limited Non-Residential No Further Action (NFA) report request submitted by Electrolux,
If approved, Electrolux would not be required to perform any additional remedying of environmental damage unless further tests reveal the necessity to do so.
But cause for concern among Belding residents was apparent Wednesday evening during a public forum hosted by the DEQ.
With 21 people in attendance, including four members of the Belding City Council, plus Sen. Mike Nofs, R-Battle Creek, questions and comments ranged from concerns about the safety of children playing on the property to accusations of deception.
Nofs, who showed concerns about the future use of the property, led the questions.
“When can this property be developed at a future date and what is the city and community able to do with this property to make it beneficial to the community again?” he asked.
“We’re doing a presumptive remedy, which means we don’t want anyone dealing with the property at depth,” DEQ Supervisor of the Remediation and Redevelopment Division for the Grand Rapids Office David O’Donnell replied. “However, if you want to use the surface of the property, you could use that today.”
O’Donnell said the possibility of creating a city park, in following the terms of the consent judgment, depends on the approval of the NFA report.
According to DEQ geologist Paul Knoerr, the minimum depth of the current covered soil ranges from 2 to 7 feet, with existing asphalt and concrete slabs also buried throughout the property.
“You’d have to go through 2 feet of soil, and then through asphalt or concrete to come into contact with (contaminants)” he said.
That statement was not reassuring to Belding resident Henry Kuhfeldt.
“I just don’t see how that is beneficial to the community at all,” he said. “It seems like we are sitting on a ticking time bomb that we can never touch.”
City Councilman Mike Scheid accused the DEQ of glancing over years of contamination.
“This is ridiculous. That property was not remediated, not even a little bit,” Scheid said. “But you’re ready to open that property up when we still don’t know what’s there. Now we have to sit here on this and wonder what’s going to happen … it was just covered up. You’re not giving us much of a fair shake.”
According to O’Donnell, the DEQ “cannot dictate to a responsible party what to do” in its remediation efforts as long as they are following state and federal statutes.
“I have to implement the law as it is written,” he said. “They’ve provided us the documents, they’ve done the work that was necessary and they did the additional work that we requested. My obligation is to implement the statute to make sure that whatever remedy is there is protective of public health, safety, welfare and of the environment.”
In response to allegations from residents that Electrolux may be dishonest in reports released to the DEQ, O’Donnell said he has no evidence of any such actions.
Belding resident Amy Garvey said she was concerned contaminants known to exist underground will eventually present themselves and be a serious problem.
O’Donnell said extra the DEQ requested Electrolux to perform additional work on site for that very reason.
“That’s why we asked for additional work,” he said. “We didn’t get the smoking gun that frankly we thought we would find.”
On the record
In recording statements to be considered in the DEQ’s official summary, Mayor Ron Gunderson asked the DEQ and Electrolux to alternate performing tests on the property every six months for a minimum of five years.
“This isn’t for us, this isn’t for anybody sitting here,” he said. “This is for our grandchildren and the people that are coming into this town in the future, not now. We know (the contamination) is there. That doesn’t need to be a park, it needs to be safe.”
Nofs requested the DEQ be more diligent with its testing and sharing of results.
“I would hope that you would give some comfort to the people in this community, so that they understand that you are trying to do your job and you are looking out for them,” Nofs said.
City Councilman Jerry Lallo requested the DEQ not take any action until it is confident in its findings.
“I believe you said you have some levels of confidence, but I ask you to be 100 percent confident before you start opening up that property,” he said. “When you start talking about parks for kids, this community is scared. They are afraid of what is happening here.”
In closing, Scheid asked the DEQ to release a statement that shows what the effects of contaminants on site would be if consumed.
“I would like to see a report that really shows what this contamination can do, what will happen if it hits the aquifer,” he said. “You guys know what it will do, so put it in writing so people can see it, that way they know what we are up against.”
The DEQ will now create a summery including the on-the-record public comments, which will be part of the information the DEQ considers in making its decision on the NFA.
The DEQ will make a determination by April 30 on whether to approve Electrolux’s request.