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Small Town Terror: Birds Falling from Sky Near Former Chemical Site in Michigan

A rural Michigan hamlet is still suffering the toxic effects of a chemical plant shuttered 37 years ago.
 
 
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In tiny St. Louis, Michigan, robins are falling from the sky, convulsing, and dying in yards and on the pavement. University researchers' evidence points to a long shuttered chemical plant nearby as the cause.

On the banks of the Pine River in rural mid-Michigan, the Velsicol Chemical plant manufactured an assortment of chemicals, including dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethan e (DDT), a now banned insecticide, and polybrominated biphenyl (PBB), a fire retardant with known health risks. DDT is linked to brain-development abnormalities in the womb and low birth weights. PBB is known known to cause immunotoxicity and disorders related to the central nervous system in mice and is a possible carcinogen.

Residents say that while it's been a notable number, there's no telling how many birds are dying in such a manner. They say that many birds have fallen in yards to which they have no access and that many birds may have been dragged off and perhaps consumed by wildlife, cats or dogs.

Volunteers in one St. Louis neighborhood gathered 29 dead songbirds, including 22 robins last year, and brought them to Michigan State University for an analysis, and what researchers there found was alarming. The forensic reports indicate that brain and liver abnormalities were found in 12 of the birds, and the brains of the birds had high amounts of DDT and its breakdown compounds DDD and DDE.

The Detroit Free Press reports that the mean level of DDT and its component parts was 552 parts per million. The samples taken from the dead American robins ranged from 155 parts per million to 1043 parts per million. Just 30 parts per million of DDT is known to be fatal to many bird species. It's believed that the birds died after eating contaminated worms and insects that were poisoned by the local soil.

Such horrors nothing new to the 7,400 residents of St. Louis; they've been seeing problems associated with the Velsicol plant for decades.

In 1973, a mixture of several different PBB congeners was accidentally mixed with livestock feed that was sold to farms across Michigan. Some 1.5 million chickens, 30,000 cattle, 5,900 pigs, and 1,470 sheep consumed the contaminated feed. The animals were culled and their carcasses were buried in landfills across the state. This tragedy was fictionalized in the 1981 made-for-television film Bitter Harvest with Ron Howard and Art Carney.

Velsicol (formerly Michigan Chemical) got off with not much more than a wrist slap after it closed the plant in 1977 and entered bankruptcy in the 1980s. It left only about $20 million for clean up of toxins left by the plant. Taxpayers have picked up the rest of the bill. It is estimated that the eventual clean up of the area will cost some $500 million.

Currently the EPA is using backhoes to dig up contaminated soil in the town, including in about 100 residential yards in the nine-block area near the shuttered plant. So far, only one home owner has refused remediation. The Velsicol plant has been an EPA Superfund site for decades.

Although the Velsicol plant was torn down years ago, the land remains vacant to this day; it was declared an EPA Superfund site in 1982, and is currently one of the EPA's costliest clean-up sites. Dredging has been underway for years to remove chemical contaminants from the river, which runs alongside the property where the plant was located. But health experts are saying that the EPA and the state of Michigan has bungled the cleanup in St. Louis, which is why the cleanup continues decades later. 

Cliff Weathers is a senior editor at AlterNet, covering environmental and consumer issues. He is a former deputy editor at Consumer Reports. His work has also appeared in Salon, Car and Driver, Playboy, and Detroit Monthly among other publications. Follow him on Twitter @cliffweathers and on Facebook.

 
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