The effort to clean up the Pine River watershed, while an unfortunate environmental disaster, has been an invaluable experience for involved Alma College students. Students interested in Public Health, Law,
Environmental Studies, Biology, Chemistry, Communication and
other disciplines have contributed to the social and legal movement to
clean up polluted sites in the area. Students in the natural sciences have provided research support for the local community advisory group for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency while others have studied legal and social aspects of the problem. The Pine River Environmental Project website was created by students to fully record all environmental and legal action taken for the college and community to reference.
Former public affairs students have used experience gained working for the community to contribute to careers in Law, Environmental Law, Natural Resource Policy, and many others.
When the EPA presented their original plan for the remedial cleanup of the river, it involved lowering the water level at a downstream dam and thus allowing direct access of heavy equipment to the river bottom to remove contaminated sediment. Faculty at Alma College, working through the CAG were concerned that existing contaminated sediment would be mobilized and carried downstream.
Students enrolled in a hydrogeology class, attending a monthly CAG meeting where this plan was announced, decided to use what they were learning about geomorphology and hydrodynamics and apply it to a real-world problem. The result was a student-led study that showed the EPA and community that any drawdown could mobilize existing contaminated sediment and endanger downstream communities. As a result, the EPA changed their plan for removing the contaminated river sediment and little contaminated sediment was liberated and moved downstream.
Pine River Background
In the center of the Lower Peninsula of Michigan is Gratiot County, the home of the watershed for the Pine River, which includes two current National Priority List (NPL) Superfund sites: the Velsicol Chemical Site and the Gratiot County Landfill. The region also includes our former NPL site, which has been cleaned by moving its contaminants to the Velsicol Chemical site. Currently, the Velsicol site is one of the EPA's megasites, with cleanup costs estimated to exceed $50 million.
Superfund: Federal government program to clean up the nations uncontrolled hazardous waste site.
In 1935 the Michigan Chemical Company, later to be called Velsicol Chemical, was opened in St. Louis. Brine extraction from the mineral springs in the surrounding area promoted the growth of the chemical industry. Independently of Velsicol, many small oil refineries grew in Alma and St. Louis to process cruce oil from deposits under mid-Michigan. The last of these was operated by Total Petroleum, the large French refiner. Total and its predecessor refineries dumped tons of petroleum and related wases into the watershed, complicating cleanups at the downriver Velsicol site.The environmental problems of the region, which brought brief periods of prosperity followed by long term economic decline and negative stigmas to the region, have left the community and the watershed with a sense of political powerlessness inappropriate in a democracy. Decisions have been made too often by company officials, political leaders, and other experts with little regard for the welfare to the communities in the middle of the state. When the U.S. EPA reopened the settlement of the 1980's with Velsicol and then followed up on complaints against Total with law suits for environmental violations, the community reasserted its right to participate in decision making. In 1998, the Pine River Superfund Task Force was established as an officially recognized Community Advisory Group (CAG) for U.S. EPA. The Task Force has had the support of Alma College faculty and Public Affairs students in establishing this website and otherwise mobilizing public participation in the policy process. As the remediation of the Velsicol site resumed in 1998, the Task Force shifted its focus to the wider issues of environmental sustainability in the region. The College and the Task Force are committed to systematically addressing the environmental policies that are needed to assure the protection of the watershed for the good of future generations. As has been emphasized by our native-American predecessors, we may be responsible not for short-run economic exploitation, as marked the decisions of Velsicol and Total, but the survival of our resources for the use of seven generations. The Task Force and the College are determined to use their resources to bring about the regions transformation from symbol of environmental abuse to one of good environmental stewardship.
In 2001-02, two students at the college, who were not from the area but lived in college residence halls, had become so involved with the CAG that one was the elected secretary of the CAG. The other student did website design for the CAG. More importantly, the two initiated a project to record and encourage community involvement in the CAG. They did these projects not as outsiders doing a class project, but out of concern for community participation. The community involvement projects were so innovative that the U.S. Departments of Energy and Defense paid for the two students to present their work to community leaders from similar towns near what are called “Federal facilities.”
Alma College and the Community
Alma College faculty, staff and students have worked extensively with the Pine River and the surrounding communities for decades. The river provides a real life forum for scientific, policy, health and cultural studies because of the presence of the Superfund site in St. Louis and the refinery in Alma. In 1998 the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determined the river was not undergoing the expected “natural attenuation” of the chemical DDT. DDT was still present in sediments and fish at elevated levels; therefore, an emergency cleanup was declared. Although there is little institutional memory of the PBB disaster in St. Louis in the early 1970’s, which led to the declaration of the Superfund site, there are members of the community who have lived through the disastrous events. When the emergency removal was declared, citizens in St. Louis demanded a voice, which had not been allowed earlier. The college and the community collaborated to form an EPA sanctioned Community Advisory Group (CAG), which serves as a conduit between the community and the EPA. Because of the recognition of other industrial wastes associated with the Pine River, the CAG was named the Pine River Superfund Citizens Task Force and continues to monitor activity in the Pine River from its source in Montcalm County to its confluence with the Tittabawassee River. The CAG and its executive council is made up of members from the citizens of Gratiot County and surrounding areas impacted by the Pine River, which includes the City of St. Louis and Alma College. The College and the CAG work closely with the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), the state regulatory agency, to monitor the Superfund cleanup and other activities involving the Pine River. The College-CAG has formed a vigorous collaboration to promote a campaign to completely clean up the former chemical plant site, which is the source of the pollution. The college and the community work together to ensure the exchange of ideas between the EPA, the MDEQ, the local media and members of the greater community regarding information and ideas concerning the Pine River. The collaboration has been extremely successful and has allowed the group to become the largest CAG in the United States and serve as a model for the EPA of community participation in local environmental problems. Other CAG’s from around the country have consulted with the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force for recommendations and ways to manage their own environmental problems.
What Makes Alma's Community Research Unique?
1. Students in Public Affairs, as well as other areas are able to apply what they learn in the classroom to current real-world problems.2. The relationship between the college and the CAG makes this kind of "action research" possible, and directly impacts the community. Studies can be conducted and completed in a reasonable amount of time in which action can easily be taken to avoid potential problems.
3. The community benefits directly from the work of the college students and faculty. This goes a long way towards cementing a strong, positive relationship between Alma College and our surrounding communities.