The Ware Road Dump, located a few miles southeast of town, was in use by local businesses and individuals from the late 1950s until 1982. This spring, the old dump was identified by the State of Michigan as polluted by three highly toxic chemicals: tetrachloroethylene, dichloroethane and carbon tetrachloride. This land is still owned by the city, so the city will be financially responsible for cleaning up the site.
According to an article in the April 7, 1982 edition of the Lowell Ledger, the dump did not open that spring “because of the regulations set forth in the state’s Public Act 614."
In effect from 1978 until 1994, Public Act 614 was also known as the Solid Waste Management Act. One of the laws in PA 614 stated, "If contaminants that may threaten the public health, safety, welfare, or the environment are found in the leachate collection system [...] the owner or operator of the landfill shall determine the source and nature of the contaminants and shall make repairs, to the extent practicable, that will prevent the contaminants from entering the leachate collection system."
City leaders in 1982 were either not able or not willing to pay the thousands of dollars it would have cost to do an environmental investigation and repairs at the Ware Road Dump.
"Just the hydrologic studies necessary to satisfy the requirements in PA 614 would cost the city from $20,000 to $40,000,” the 1982 Ledger article stated. "The landfill generates about $750 to $1,000 annually."
In late 1986, at their own expense, the State of Michigan installed three monitoring wells in the northern part of the dump.
"The [Department of Natural Resources] has offered to fund a hydrological study at the city's old landfill site on Ware Rd.," read an article on page 1 of the Oct. 8, 1986 Lowell Ledger. "Lowell city manager Ray Quada feels that it is just a matter of time before the city would be required to conduct this study and recommended that the city council take advantage of the DNR’s offer while they are willing to pay for it. Quada estimates that the cost to drill the test wells and set up monitoring stations at $17,000 to $18,000. Quada noted that a side benefit to the project might well be the reopening of the landfill if no leaching is found. He added that any re-opening of the landfill would be strictly limited to brush, leaves and other nontoxic materials. The council unanimously agreed to accept the DNR offer."
The following month, the state's new monitoring wells determined that tetrachloroethylene, dichloroethane and carbon tetrachloride were present at 9.5 parts per billion, so the city left the Ware Road Dump closed permanently. The issue of the polluted dump was then put aside for 37 years until the Michigan Environment, Great Lakes and Energy department notified the city about the situation a few weeks ago.
“We were informed of the report from 1987 that indicated groundwater contamination existed at the property from landfill leachate," Lowell city manager Michael Burns said at the May 20, 2019 city council meeting. "At the time, levels of tetrachloroethylene, dichloroethane and carbon tetrachloride above the minimal impact levels were detected. In the 1980s there was communication between the then Department of Natural Resources and the city to take steps to address this, but it appears there was no action taken by the city, nor prompting from the DNR to do so. In our [April 2019] letter, we were directed to communicate and begin taking remediation actions.”
The city is working with Grand Rapids firm BLDI Environmental Engineering to investigate the Ware Road Dump and come up with a plan to deal with the contaminated land.
"When I see the data, it's slightly below clean up criteria," BLDI president Joe Berlin said at the May 20, 2019 city council meeting. "If everything else falls in line with that, then we're on the lower end. If the concentrations go up and they go long distances, just simply investigating it could run well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. But we don't know that yet, so I would caution anyone to project this out.”
At this point, the city plans to install five or six more monitoring wells at a potential cost of $5,000 each. That action is just the beginning of what could become a very costly process depending on what is found by those monitoring wells and in what quantities.
Although they are highly toxic chemicals, tetrachloroethylene, dichloroethane and carbon tetrachloride are still widely used in various industrial processes. It will be difficult, maybe impossible, to determine precisely which businesses were responsible for polluting the site, because no records exist that document who dumped what.
Tetrachloroethylene, sometimes called simply “dry cleaning fluid,” is mainly used for dry cleaning, but also as a degreaser in the automotive and metalworking industries, as a paint stripper and as a spot remover. It is known for its sweet odor and, because of its cancer risks, is banned for use by dry cleaners in California. Exposure to tetrachloroethylene is associated with liver and kidney cancer, Parkinson’s disease, skin irritation and the loss of color vision. Tetrachloroethylene is one of the most common soil contaminants, and because of its mobility in groundwater, its toxicity at low levels and its density, cleaning it up can be more difficult and costly than dealing with an oil spill.
“Dichloroethane” refers to either ethylidene dichloride or ethylene dichloride; both chemicals have the molecular formula C2H4Cl2. It is not currently known which one of these was found in 1987.
Ethylidene dichloride is colorless and oily and smells like chloroform. More than one million pounds of the chemical are manufactured in the US every year. It is used as a solvent, a degreaser, to make insecticides and fire extinguishers and in the manufacture of rubber. Exposure to ethylidene dichloride can cause an irregular heartbeat, weight loss and kidney problems. It evaporates quickly, but it does not break down in water and does not bind to soil particles so can be difficult to clean up.
Ethylene dichloride is also colorless and also smells like chloroform. It is one of the main ingredients of polyvinyl chloride, used to make PVC pipes, upholstery, wallpaper, auto parts and housewares. It is highly toxic, especially through inhalation of its vapor, and highly flammable. It has a 50 year half-life in anoxic aquifers and is very expensive to clean up.
Carbon tetrachloride is used by different industries as a dry cleaning solvent, as the main ingredient in fire extinguishers and as a refrigerant. It was used by stamp collectors to reveal watermarks and it was the chemical that made the goop in lava lamps float around looking psychedelic. Exposure to carbon tetrachloride is toxic to the central nervous system, liver and kidneys. Prolonged exposure, even to its vapor, can put you in a coma, give you cancer or kill you.
During the early 20th century, carbon tetrachloride was commonly used in homes as a cleaning product. People used it to clean furniture, clothing, fabric and other textiles because it was much safer than the era's alternatives. For example, an article on page two of the Sept. 26, 1935 Lowell Ledger suggested using carbon tetrachloride instead of gasoline or "naptha" [an obsolete product generally comparable to diesel fuel or kerosene] to clean filthy items.
"Accidents caused by the use of naptha or gasoline for cleaning clothes or fabrics in homes can be avoided if carbon tetrachloride is used as a cleaning fluid in place of those inflammable liquids, according to the home economics division at Michigan State College," the 1935 Ledger article stated. "Carbon tetrachloride is more expensive than the more commonly used naptha or gasoline, but the cost of the safe cleaning agent can be kept down if the liquid in which fabrics are cleaned is saved and filtered after use. All cleaning fluids, whether inflammable or not, should be used out of doors. The fumes are unpleasant and sometimes harmful."
Other Ledger articles from the 1930s through the 1950s suggested household use of carbon tetrachloride for tasks such as removing sweat stains from silk, fumigating closets, soaking garments to kill moths and removing sticky bubblegum from surfaces. However, by 1960, the Ledger was warning readers not to use the chemical for any reason at all. For example, an article on page three of the Nov. 10, 1960 Ledger carried the headline “Carbon Tetrachloride Is Potential Killer.”
"Stains on the carpet, cleaning fluid and death are a terrible trio, but they sometimes go together," The 1960 Ledger article stated. "The villain in this plot is carbon tetrachloride. Homemakers often reach for a bottle of this chemical, or for a solution which contains carbon tetrachloride, yet too often they fail to read the caution signs on the label. Jessie Marion, home furnishings specialist at Michigan State University, says carbon tetrachloride owes its popularity and ‘safe’ reputation to the fact that it is nonflammable. This advantage is counteracted by the fact that it can be toxic when the fumes are inhaled or when it comes in direct contact with the skin. A vapor builds up very quickly, especially in a closed room, and can become dangerous even before odor is noticeable. First reactions to exposure may be headache, mental confusion, nausea and loss of coordination or sense of balance. These symptoms may not appear until sometime after contact. Prolonged use of carbon tetrachloride produces a high vapor concentration. This happens when a homemaker gives her rug a vigorous cleaning, and may occur even when she is removing spots. This high concentration of vapor can cause major damage to the liver and result in death. The homemaker is not using a harmless liquid when she uncaps a bottle of carbon tetrachloride. She is dealing with a potential killer and should treat it accordingly."