Contaminated water likely not poisoning city, officials claim

State and federal officials noted plans are in motion to rein in the estimated 72,000 gallons per day of contaminated wastewater flowing into the Detroit River upstream of Wyandotte’s drinking water intake.
Aerial view of BASF Plastics plant in Wyandotte, Michigan. Source: FracTrackerVideos

Around 72,000 gallons of toxic waste-contaminated water spewing daily from a BASF chemical plant into the Detroit River just upstream of Wyandotte’s drinking water intake is likely not poisoning the city, state, federal and city officials claimed during a Wednesday meeting to reassure the public. 

Though regulators and elected officials insisted drinking water was safe, they acknowledged that they are not testing it for some chemicals found at high levels at the 230-acre BASF site. They detailed interim steps taken to attempt to stem the flow of toxic waste. Still, construction of a critical piece isn’t expected until 2027, and no timeline was provided for a permanent solution. 

The meeting was organized in the wake of a Planet Detroit story detailing how state and federal regulators have known for at least 43 years that groundwater contaminated with high levels of mercury, benzene, cyanide, PFAS, naphthalene and other dangerous chemicals has moved into the river – as much as 1.1 billion gallons since 1980.

State and federal regulators stressed that they share in residents’ concerns but said the project is moving in the right direction after decades of failed cleanup efforts. 

“We acknowledge that the cleanup is taking longer than the community would like, and we understand your concerns about the ecosystems and drinking water,” said Valerie Voison, a project manager with the EPA.

But environmental groups and public health advocates said they remained frustrated with the slow pace of action. 

“I’m disappointed that we’re still years from seeing this problem solved after it’s been going on for generations,” said Dave Dempsey, former Michigan Gov. James Blanchard’s environmental advisor. 

Critics characterized the BASF site as an alarming case of regulatory failure that has for decades jeopardized the health of residents and wildlife. In its Aug. 3 report, Planet Detroit reviewed a trove of EGLE and EPA documents obtained via the Freedom of Information Act that showed how, for decades regulators repeatedly criticized BASF’s cleanup proposals for their weaknesses and noted that the company’s steps were inadequate. 

Still, multiple action plans detailed in the documents appear to have fizzled, and BASF has yet to address the problem. 

Documents showed decades of persistently high levels of contaminants in the property’s water and soil, including 13 chemicals that exceeded state clean water standards in 2021 testing.  

Among the comments made by regulators that raised eyebrows on Wednesday was the insistence that BASF is in compliance with consent agreements the company signed with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the EPA in 1980 and 1994, respectively. Those order the company to “prevent the flow of contaminated groundwater … to the Detroit River.”

EPA officials said BASF complies with the consent order because it continues working with regulators toward a solution, even if it has failed to reach one, to prevent the toxic waste’s flow, and to properly monitor it, for 43 years. 

“BASF is in compliance with its consent order, and has been working with us in our design and has been responsive to us as of now,” said Shilpa Patel, an EPA official. “As of now, we have no concern about non-compliance with the order.”

But Christy McGillivray, legislative director with Sierra Club of Michigan, called that assertion “bananas.” She said the response from regulators and elected officials largely left her unsatisfied.  

“This is one of the most egregious examples that I think we can come up with that demonstrates how profoundly broken our environmental regulatory system is,” McGillivray said following the meeting. 

Safe drinking water? 

The Biddle Avenue BASF plant property runs about 1.2 miles along the Detroit River shoreline, where it produces a wide range of industrial products, including polyurethane for seat cushions, insulation, footwear and other uses; specialized plastics for automotive or electronics use; and resins for packaging or surface coatings. 

The property’s former owner, Wyandotte Chemicals, was one of the world’s largest producers of lye and chlorine in the 1960s and 1970s, and the production process required the use of mercury dumped in landfills on the site’s shoreline. According to an EGLE memo, BASF used some of that contaminated soil as a fill around the site’s perimeter and shoreline. 

BASF previously did not respond to a Planet Detroit request for comment, and the company did not speak at Wednesday’s meeting. But it did comment for an op-ed on the issue written by US Rep. Debbie Dingell earlier this week. 

“BASF regards protection of health, safety and the environment as our most important responsibility,” a company spokesperson said. “We care about our employees and our contractors, and we care about our communities. We are committed to operating facilities in a safe and environmentally responsible fashion.”

Dingell, who has demanded answers from regulators over the BASF situation and sharply criticized BASF in the past, briefly made a statement during Wednesday’s meeting in which she thanked the EPA for organizing the meeting.

“There continue to be so many questions and concerns about what is going on at BASF, what is happening with the water, and it’s really important that you hear the facts … and for you to get it directly,” she said. “I promise all of us are going to ensure every single second that your water is safe to drink and what needs to get done is going to get done.” 

Prior to its Aug. 3 report, Planet Detroit sought comment from all Wyandotte City Council members and the city’s water utility administrator, none of whom responded. Only Wyandotte Mayor DeSana spoke at Wednesday’s meeting, and he insisted there were no issues with drinking water. 

“There’s no chance PFAS will get into that intake,” he said. Later in the meeting, regulators noted PFAS had been found in Wyandotte’s drinking water, though not consistently, during four years of testing. The BASF site is contaminated with high levels of the “forever chemicals” from firefighting foam discharged on the property during emergency training or used in products manufactured at the plant. 

However, the city and state confirmed they do not test for all the chemicals found at elevated levels at the BASF site. Planet Detroit previously noted that documents showed the state and Wyandotte were not testing for cyanide, sulfate, arsenic, phenanthrene, bis(2- chloroethyl) ether, 3-methylphenol, 4-methylphenol and dibenzofuran, all of which were found at elevated levels in recent testing. 

When asked about the chemicals on Wednesday, Ian Smith, head of emerging contaminants for EGLE, said the state had tested the water for cyanide and arsenic, as is required by state law, but not since 2020. The state does test for sulfate every two weeks, but the remainder of the chemicals are unregulated, so they are not tested for.

Officials said they believe the contamination is not ending up in the intake because of how the river moves through the area. Melinda Steffler, an EGLE official in its water resources division, said the agency studied the river’s mixing patterns and flow near where the contaminated water was discharging into the river.

“There didn’t appear to be an imminent concern for drinking water at the intake,” she said.  

Regardless, Smith noted that the city is installing a granular activated carbon treatment system, but that won’t be ready for several years.  

What’s next? 

Even if the drinking water is safe, the environmental pollution continues, McGillivray said. A Michigan wildlife expert previously told Planet Detroit the toxins are likely settling on the river bed and poisoning key pieces of the aquatic food chain. 

“Even if it is accurate to claim water coming out of people’s taps is clean and they are doing their best to make sure BASF is not violating state drinking water standards, that doesn’t mean BASF isn’t venting 3,000 gallons per minute of toxic water into the Detroit River,” McGillivray said. 

EPA’s Voison noted that the complexity of the site’s contamination has prolonged the cleanup effort. While regulators once focused on spots on the property where hazardous waste was known to be dumped, it changed course after a series of investigations from the 1990s through 2015 led the agency to believe the entire property had to be addressed because the waste is dispersed. 

BASF submitted a cleanup plan in 2015 which the EPA rejected, and a new plan that includes interim and longterm solutions is now in place. 

This summer, BASF began pumping and treating some water from the site. It is also planning to install a wall system along the shoreline to try to prevent groundwater from moving from the site into the river. The water will back into a trench from which a pump system pulls water. The water will be treated and spit into the public sewer system.

Construction on the wall and pump system is expected to begin in 2027.


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