BELDING — The issue of contamination at the Electrolux property on the corner of Bridge and Main streets in Belding is one that won’t be going away anytime soon.
About 85 people gathered in the Belding High School auditorium for a three-hour meeting Thursday night to listen and ask questions as members of Belding City Council gave a presentation of environmental uses on the Electrolux property on the corner of Bridge and Main streets.
The presentation, led by Belding City Attorney Gary Rentrop and environmental consultant Mark Zayatz of Hydro-Logic Associates, Inc., addressed contamination issues of 11 chemicals known to have been used on the property since the original buildings were constructed.
The city presented data to the community, which it gathered from files originally collected by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), Ionia County, the city of Belding, and other environmental data resources.
According to Zayatz, the data shows that contamination from chemicals such as Trichloroethylene (TCE), a chlorinated hydrocarbon used as an industrial solvent, have been identified in storm water outfall and in the north well on the site. He said release of the chemical has also been identified in cracks in TCE-degreaser containment pits and in a catch basin on site.
According to Zayatz, the amount of unknown and undocumented contamination on the site is anyone’s guess, which causes a potential threat to the safety of the community.
Belding City Manager Randy DeBruine said the chemicals, though a concern, have not contaminated the city’s drinking water.
“Our drinking water is 100 percent safe,” he said. “We test it on a regular basis. We have a wellhead protection system in place to monitor our drinking water system.”
Director of Public Works Ernie Thomas said the city follows all DEQ requirements when monitoring the drinking water wells.
“We have not shown any contamination levels of anything that would be related to the Electrolux issue or of anything else.”
‘What can we do?’
“The first step is finding out what we are dealing with,” Zayatz said. “We don’t have enough information. We can surmise some of it, but that’s it. We have to know what we are dealing with to effectively work (with the property). Can we effectively work it? Yes we can, but it’s going to take some money to do it.”
According to Zayatz, the property owner, Electrolux Home Products, Inc., is ultimately responsible for the cleanup efforts and the costs associated.
“The contaminator is ultimately responsible for the contamination and cleanup,” he said. “Ultimately, Electrolux is responsible and has been responsible (since purchasing the property).”
That raised the question, “what can we do?” multiple times from audience members throughout the night, which was addressed on every occasion with a similar answer.
“City Council is working with the help of the DEQ to help Electrolux acknowledge (the situation),” Zayatz said.
According to Zayatz, City Council has reached out to the head of the DEQ through State Sen. Judy Emmons, R-Sheridan, and is working to get Electrolux more involved in the discussion.
“Right now what we would like to do is instead of affixing blame, we’d like to bring Electrolux back, as they used the labor of this town and as part of the costs of doing business they contaminated the site,” he said. “They need to come back and finish the job so that we can use the property (again).”
Zayatz said he is unsure where things go from here, but the next step must involve the DEQ.
“The first step is being taken,” he said. “The DEQ is involved, we’re involved, but we’re waiting for the third part of the triangle (Electrolux) to step up and deal with it, and that is what we are trying to force right now.”
According to Rentrop, the city is “incredibly dependent on its involvement with the DEQ,” as he said any action via a lawsuit involving the city would ultimately end in failure.
Small town vs. multi-billion dollar corporation
“This is a small town and you are dealing with a multi-billion dollar corporation,” he said. “(Electrolux) has demonstrated so far that they are willing to spend as much money as it takes to get what they want. We are very dependent on the DEQ taking the bull by horns on the environmental issue.”
DEQ representative David O’Donnell, of the Grand Rapids District office, said he and his staff are currently working to get in contact with Electrolux.
“I need to work with Electrolux just like we worked with Mueller Industries on their cleanup,” O’Donnell said. “If Electrolux fails to respond to us in a positive way and in a reasonable time frame, I think this spring, then we’re going to need to try to do some other things that may not be quite as gentle. I’m hoping that within a couple of months we’re going to be having some more serious meetings with Electrolux, talking about what kinds of things they need to do to demonstrate that this site is going to be cleaned up.”
O’Donnell said current government regulations make it difficult to bring Electrolux to the forefront and take immediate action.
“What you have to understand about the cleanup regulations is that the person doing the cleanup is given a lot of power under the state statutes to call the shots,” he said. “The person who owns the property has a lot of power about what goes on in a cleanup.”
In response to a question about Electrolux having any sympathy about saving the clock tower and preserving other properties on site, Mayor Ron Gunderson said, “At this point in time, there is no sympathy.
“We had an eight-hour hearing yesterday (Wednesday) and (Electrolux’s) position is that the buildings are in such disrepair (they) are not worth saving,” he said. “Eugene Hopkins, who is a historic architect from Belding, totally disagrees. He said this building is in better shape than most of the buildings he has to deal with.”
Gunderson said Thursday’s meeting is only the start of a long process.
“We don’t plan on this being the last meeting, but this is the start,” he said. “The council and the city has taken a lot over this. The Michigan Municipal League has stepped up to pick up our litigation part where the city was sued by Electrolux because of situations going on that they felt they needed to control. The contamination and environmental issues have been picked up by the city. To date, after several budget amendments, we are now $148,469 out of our pocket because of the state and Electrolux. The state has dropped the ball on the city of Belding. Electrolux came after us because they wanted to … come in, tear it down, throw a fence around it and walk away — exactly what they did in Greenville.”
Gunderson said the city now has ordinances in place to help prevent that from happening.
“If they tear buildings down, they have to remove the slabs and foundations,” he said.
According to Gunderson, the permit for demolition Electrolux submitted, which was denied at by the Historic District Commission Wednesday night, did not meet those requirements.
In closing, councilman Jon Bunce thanked everyone for attending and said more community involvement must occur in the future.
“Electrolux bought this property for one reason, to tear everything down and hide the contamination in the ground,” he said. “They didn’t want us to know about it. They wanted to cap (the contamination) and leave, go back to Mexico and not worry about Belding. We’ve been doing our best to fight against the giant, and we’ve gotten a lot further than a lot of other towns. We’re going to continue to fight.”