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Hillsdale City lead­ership has made efforts to address issues of envi­ron­mental con­t­a­m­i­nation within the city by taking steps to identify and better under­stand pos­sible pol­luted sites.

According to an agenda summary from City Manager Linda Brown to the city council dated Jan. 30 of this year, the city action was prompted by a business which “made a decision not to pursue [the] pur­chase of [a] building” in the city after dis­cov­ering that the property was con­t­a­m­i­nated.

In the doc­ument, Brown details how she and council member and Hillsdale Eco­nomic Devel­opment Director Mary Wolfram met with rep­re­sen­ta­tives from the Michigan Department of Envi­ron­mental Quality in order to learn about the nature of known con­t­a­m­i­nated “facil­ities” throughout the city and more com­pletely under­stand their impact on the city economy.

Wolfram said a better under­standing of the potential con­t­a­m­i­nated sit­u­a­tions may be “cru­cially important to bringing in new business and employment to the city.” Busi­nesses that pur­chase property with envi­ron­mental issues may face long-term lia­bility if the pol­lution on their land causes any other issues, even if they were not the original pol­luters.

Wolfram was quick to point out that many busi­nesses may not have been acting against the law when original pol­lution occurred.  “These were accepted prac­tices… In many of these cases [the pol­luters] were probably acting in the accepted method of the day,” Wolfram said.

“In general, laws to protect the envi­ronment from pol­lution have increased sig­nif­i­cantly since the early 1970s,” said Asso­ciate Pro­fessor of Chem­istry Mark Nussbaum.

“It is typ­i­cally man­dated now that indus­tries and util­ities assess the envi­ron­mental impact of any change in facil­ities or processes… routine testing is also required,” Nussbaum said.

This changing legal land­scape may leave offi­cials and property owners with a dif­ficult sit­u­ation where no one ulti­mately wants to claim cul­pa­bility. Wolfram likens the dif­fi­culty to “a hot potato: [the question becomes] who is the last one standing that happens to be caught with it.”

Wolfram said that during the meeting with DEQ offi­cials some spe­cific oppor­tu­nities to gain funding to help city property owners were dis­cussed.

“[The DEQ] gets funding from the federal gov­ernment through the Envi­ron­mental Pro­tection Agency in the form of a ‘site assessment’ grant. The state DEQ can then admin­ister those funds to the city,” Wolfram said.

The site assessment grant is not designed to provide money for cleanup, but instead allows for closer study of what, if any, potential problems may exist at a given location. Wolfram said these site assess­ments can help give owners and offi­cials valuable infor­mation.

“It may be unclear how much clean up needs to be done. [A site] might not need any­thing. In which case, that is a great thing to know. Then the next time a company comes we can tell them we’ve had analysis done by the Michigan DEQ,” she said.

Brown told the council in her agenda brief that she believes “very important con­tacts were estab­lished [by meeting with the DEQ]” and said she will keep the council updated on further devel­op­ments.

“[I] am hopeful that we can move forward toward assisting [business owners] … We do not want any­thing to stand in the way of industry locating in our city,” Brown said.

slichti@hillsdale.edu