ST. LOUIS, Mich. (WOOD) — In many ways, St. Louis, Michigan, is your typical small town. Main Street is one of the city’s primary throughways. The “downtown” shopping district spans just a few blocks. St. Louis doesn’t have a Walmart to call its own. That requires a quick drive over to the nearby city of Alma.
But St. Louis has its own claims to fame. The town of approximately 6,800 people prides itself on being the “Middle of the Mitten” — measured to be the geographic center of the state of Michigan. Signs throughout the city boast about that fact.
A cynic could call it the middle of nowhere, but that isn’t necessarily true. At one time, St. Louis wasn’t just the “middle” of Michigan, it was also the center of a statewide controversy.
Just a couple of short blocks from Main Street, there is a giant swath of open land, about 54 acres in all. It’s surrounded by chainlink fence, with construction equipment and power stations lining the paths. The warning signs are faded by the sun. The lettering that was once a bright red is now a pale pink, but all these years later they still read “Private Property, No Trespassing.”
There is a gated driveway with a sign of its own. You have arrived at the former Velsicol Chemical Plant, now an EPA Superfund Cleanup site. On the other side of the driveway is a ceremonial bench, built on behalf of the city. The inscription reads, “We declare our mutual aim that our river and land be restored to their natural condition safe for any use.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has been working off and on at the site for more than 40 years now — and the work continues. The Pine River and surrounding areas have been contaminated for much longer than that. But 50 years ago, a simple error at the since-demolished St. Louis plant spread that contamination from a handful of communities to the entire state.
‘CAN YOU BELIEVE THIS ONE?’
“It is the most underreported disaster I have known in my long journalistic career.”
That’s how Joyce Egginton ends the first paragraph of her book, “The Poisoning of Michigan.” At the time, Egginton was an American correspondent for the London Observer. She says she stumbled onto the story tucked away deep inside an issue of The New York Times.
“I remember calling out to my husband halfway through the task, ‘Can you believe this one?’” Egginton wrote. “Way down on an inside page of the New York Times was a brief account of how in Michigan a large quantity of a highly toxic industrial fire retardant, polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), had been confused at the manufacturing plant with a nutritional supplement for cattle feed. As a result, there had been a massive, slow poisoning of dairy herds for almost a year before the accident was discovered. It was estimated that throughout that time virtually all 9 million people living in Michigan had been ingesting contaminated meat and milk on a daily basis.”
That snippet from The New York Times led Egginton to years of research and interviews, culminating in more than 300 pages packed with details, outlining a quietly escalating tragedy that centered around PBB.
PBB is a group of man-made chemicals that were first manufactured around 1970 and sold primarily as a fire retardant. They were also mixed into many plastics for consumer products, including computer monitors, televisions and textiles. But chemical manufacturers didn’t fully understand the health or environmental impact from these chemicals. Those questions came after the infamous “PBB Disaster.”
It was a late spring day in 1973 when a truck driver made a delivery from Michigan Chemical to the Michigan Farm Bureau’s central mixing facility outside of Battle Creek. The driver thought he had dropped off 50-pound bags of Nutrimaster — Michigan Chemical’s product name for magnesium oxide.
Farmers regularly mix in magnesium oxide as a supplement for milking cows. The compound provides iodine, which cows need, and it also makes the cows thirstier. The more water cows drink, the more milk they produce.
This magnesium oxide was a grayish-white powder and was packed in 50-pound brown paper sacks. The powder tended to get clumpy when exposed to moisture. What the driver had actually delivered was Firemaster, another grayish-white clumpy mixture that was packed in 50-pound brown paper bags.
“Except for the color coding on the bags, Nutrimaster and the powdery form of Firemaster could easily have been mistaken one for the other,” Egginton wrote. “Which is exactly what happened when, during a temporary nationwide paper shortage in the winter of 1972-73, Michigan Chemical Corporation ran out of preprinted bags and made do by simply hand-stenciling the trade names in black.”
Instead of mixing in a nutritional supplement, the Farm Bureau was unknowingly poisoning thousands and thousands of animals. Even worse, the problem wasn’t limited to one specific type of feed. Any feed that was processed through the same mixer that used Firemaster was now being exposed to PBB, making it even harder for the investigators trying to find the root of the problem.
THE END RESULT
In the ensuing few years, more than 500 farms across the state had to be quarantined. Approximately 30,000 cattle, 4,500 swine, 1,500 sheep, and 1.5 million chickens either died from PBB-related ailments or had to be killed. That doesn’t count the sick animals that showed clear signs of PBB toxicity but were still allowed to be sold off and slaughtered.
Rick Halbert, one of the first farmers to press the Farm Bureau on a problem with his feed, explained to Egginton how his herd’s health fell off a cliff.
“As months went by the toxic symptoms in his herd progressed, producing a mangey appearance, matted hair, thickened skin, diarrhea, emaciation,” Egginton wrote.
Many cows also showed signs of distress during pregnancy, leading to a spike in aborted or stillborn calves.
Gerald Woltjer bought a farm in Coopersville from a farmer who was forced to sell because of PBB contamination. He figured the property could still be successful with a new herd. He was wrong.
“Within two years, Woltjer’s herd — which was never quarantined — was so sick and useless that he was on the verge of bankruptcy,” Egginton wrote. “He told of scrawny cows with perpetually bloody noses ‘who acted like they were blind;’ cows so weak that they could not get up to be milked; cows which had bodily infections but passed inspection to be butchered for human consumption.”
Woltjer realized the land was contaminated and PBB exposure had spread to his herd.
“The longer I lived on that farm, the worse it became,” he told Egginton. “After a time, there were no worms in the soil. There were no field mice, no rats, no rabbits, no grasshoppers. As the cattle were dying, the cats and dogs were dying, too. A fully grown cat would live only six weeks on that farm. Our three dogs went crazy. Our neighbors had bees that were dead in the hives. The frogs were dead in the streams. There was a five-acre swamp that used to croak at night so you could hardly sleep. Then, it was silent. And it was a long time before I knew why.”
Most farmers, completely baffled by the sudden changes, fell into financial ruin. Even with the state eventually instituting PBB testing standards and a program to help compensate for their losses, many farmers faced drastic decisions. For some, it came down to killing your animals or selling an obviously sick one to market in an attempt to make any money back on a floundering investment. Many farmers, like Garry Zuiderveen from Missaukee County, refused to pass along the PBB-contaminated animals.
“We should never have had to make that decision,” Zuiderveen told Egginton. “It was the darkest day in my life when I shot those cows. A farmer is an immensely proud person. Anything wrong with his herd reflects on his husbandry and his herdmanship.”
The Michigan Department of Agriculture eventually opened a large tract of state-owned land in Kalkaska County to be used as a burial pit for tainted animals. But for farmers like Zuiderveen, who clearly had a poisoned herd but tested below the state’s safety threshold, there was no help offered.
Zuiderveen ended up digging a burial pit on his own property. His neighbors and friends came to help, knowing it would be a difficult day.
“We hauled the milk cows from the barn to the burial site on three stock trailers and put them in six or eight at a time. Within 20 seconds after they were unloaded, we shot them with high-powered rifles. This finished them instantly. They did not suffer,” Zuiderveen told Egginton. “My dad would not look at them. Tears were running down his face, a man of 78. … Those fellows don’t know what they put us through. We should never have had to kill our own cows; we were too emotionally involved.”
Zuiderveen wouldn’t take any credit for doing “the right thing.” He credited his Christian upbringing and the concept of being “our brother’s keeper.”
“I knew that, from the information we had at the time, it was the only decision we could make and still face ourselves in the mirror,” he said.
Still, plenty of other farmers couldn’t pull the trigger. Between facing bankruptcy or foreclosure, many felt like there was no other rational choice. As a result, lots of PBB-tainted meat and dairy products were sold at market and scientists estimate virtually everyone who lived in Michigan at the time was exposed to PBB and had some level stored within the fats in their body.
THE HUMAN IMPACT
Though there were studies being conducted and clear symptoms that could be traced to PBB exposure, specific findings on how PBB impacts the human body came long after the 1973 disaster. By the 1990s, researchers had been able to tie chemical pollution to a rise in hormone-related abnormalities, including breast cancer.
Michele Marcus is a professor of epidemiology at Emory University and is the lead scientist on the Michigan PBB Registry, which began in 1976. She said that PBB essentially acts as estrogen in the human body. A PBB buildup throws off the body’s hormonal balance, leading girls to mature earlier and boys to mature later and be born with abnormalities in their urinary or reproductive systems.
Researchers also found that PBB was being passed down from one generation to another, even today finding a higher rate of miscarriages in women who were born from mothers or grandmothers who were directly exposed to high levels of PBB.
“The children of the mother are exposed as it crosses the placenta and then again in breast milk because (PBB) is lipophilic. It is stored in fat, and breast milk has a very high fat concentration,” Marcus said.
The latest studies are focused on how PBB impacts a person’s DNA. Marcus explained that PBB does not mutate a person’s genetic sequence, but it can impact how certain genes are “expressed.”
“You start from a single cell. You’ve got your DNA and then the cells change and they differentiate into heart cells, stomach cells, liver cells. And each cell type has a gene expression pattern. So genes are turned off and turned on depending on the function of the cell,” Marcus said. “This is kind of a new field, which is looking at the impact of chemicals or substances on gene regulation, not on the genes themselves. … We found that PBB does impact this methylation pattern and, in fact, that’s part of the evidence that it acts like estrogen because it affects this methylation pattern in the same way as estrogen.”
So can that gene regulation be inherited? Researchers haven’t come to a unanimous conclusion yet, but Marcus believes it can.
“This is a very controversial question and for many years the dogma was no, it can’t (be inherited) because those things are stripped when the sperm are developed. When the DNA replicates that is supposed to be all stripped off,” Marcus said. “But now it seems that that’s not complete. … There have been a lot of studies that are very, very clear in animals that it happens, and the human evidence keeps accumulating.”
The Michigan PBB Registry was launched in 1976 to gather data that could eventually be used to answer these kinds of questions. The study started with approximately 4,000 people and eventually added in their children and grandchildren. Eventually, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services wanted to shut down the research project. But thanks to funding from the National Institutes of Health, it was transferred to Emory University.
Decades later, the St. Louis community remains heavily invested in the PBB disaster and anxious to learn more about how it impacted their health and environment. In 1998, after meeting with the EPA and other state departments, a community group launched the Pine River Superfund Citizen Task Force.
Jane Jelenek now serves as the chairperson of the task force. She didn’t live in St. Louis in 1973, but her husband worked at the chemical plant and had other friends and relatives who had direct exposure.
Jelenek said her work is not focused on looking to the past or securing compensation for people who were exposed; those efforts have long failed. Instead, the task force is focused on working with the EPA and holding it accountable to make sure the land is restored. She said it has been an up-and-down relationship.
“We found at our (monthly meetings) that they were more interested in the amount of dollars that they could get to do something that determined how much cleanup they actually would do. We did not think that was a very good measure,” Jelenek said. “And I remember saying at one meeting, ‘We don’t care about the money. We don’t care how much it costs. We just want it done.’”
When will it be done? Thanks to an influx of investment because of the latest infrastructure legislation, work has gotten a boost. Tom Alcamo, the EPA’s remedial project manager for the site, hopes work will be done by 2026. Eventually, the Superfund site will be deemed clean and the land will be turned over to the community.
But the scars will remain. And traces of PBB are still being passed down from one generation to the next.