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Posted on Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 5:59 a.m.

$3M cleanup of an industry's dirty footprint begins at MichCon site in Ann Arbor

By Amy Biolchini

On the surface, it appeared nature was doing its best to reclaim the 16 acres along the Huron River off Broadway Street,l known in Ann Arbor as the MichCon site.

Underground, the soil tells a different, dirtier tale. There, years of burning coal and oil to make gas left behind a tomb of old industrial structures and soils contaminated with waste residues.

DTE Energy began a $3 million major environmental remediation project on the property this month, with the crux of the effort — soil removal — slated to start Sept. 10.

An industry's footprint

About 25,000 cubic yards of sediment contaminated with the byproducts of a long-lost industry will be scraped from about 1,000 feet of riverbank and the riverbed.

The former site of a manufactured gas plant that had its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, the MichCon property still has underground storage tanks that were used to hold the gas after it was created.

Close to the railroad, the gas plant was in the midst of the industrial district in Ann Arbor, near mills and coal yards.

Years of burning coal and petroleum to make gas left behind waste residues like coal tar and other impurities on the property — much of which was bulldozed to the edge of the site and fell into the river, said Shayne Wiesemann, senior engineer for DTE.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, there are more than 1,500 former manufactured gas plants across the country. Residues from processes at the plants may contain Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons, petroleum hydrocarbons, benzene, cyanide, metals and phenols.


The Washtenaw Gas Company, formerly the Ann Arbor Gas Company, at Broadway Street and the Huron River in Ann Arbor that was purchased by MichCon in 1938.

Courtesy of the Bentley Historical Library / Ann Arbor Public Library

“Typically, soil, groundwater, and nearby sediment can be contaminated. The wastes contain a number of known and suspected cancer-causing agents and other potentially hazardous chemicals,” according to the U.S. EPA.

MichCon purchased the plant, built in 1900, from the Washtenaw Gas Company in 1938. The plant manufactured gas full time until natural gas became available to Ann Arbor in 1939. After that, the company used the plant to produce gas at peak demand times until the late 1950s. The most recent addition to the property was a service building in the 1960s, but it was torn down after being closed in 2009.

When DTE acquired MichCon in 2001, it inherited the company’s polluted sites — of which there are about 15 across Michigan. The company has since worked with the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality to clean them up.

The goal of the remediation project is to remove the soil that people are most likely to come in contact with along the riverbank and in the riverbed

This is not the first time environmental remediation projects have been conducted at the site. In 1998, 1,680 cubic yards of soil were excavated from the western part of the property. That was followed by installation and operation of a groundwater treatment system from 2000 to 2005.

Another 4,340 cubic yards of soil were removed from the eastern part of the property in 2006, followed by removal of a storm sewer outfall in 2011.

The projects have lent themselves to years of data and investigative tests, in addition to soil sampling and testing which was done in advance of the latest project, Wiesemann said.

Monitor wells installed for a previous project did not reveal residual contamination from the manufactured gas process in the groundwater, Wiesemann said. However, tests have shown ammonia in groundwater exceeding safe levels in several locations, he said. The source of the ammonia is not clear.

Tests have indicated a presence of Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons in river soils north of the site, with the highest concentration immediately adjacent to the site.

Soil and water tests conducted south of the MichCon site have not indicated the contamination has migrated downriver, Wiesemann said. Tests of the river water also have not indicated it is contaminated, he said.

Digging up pollution

Trees and undergrowth were the first to be removed from the site to give crews access to the soil underneath. Three landmark trees were saved — including the oldest tree on the site, a 51-inch cottonwood.

Hidden beneath an asphalt parking lot that takes up about one-fourth of the property lies a “hot spot” of contamination: five or six of the underground storage tanks and structures that will be excavated as a part of the project.

The amount of soil that will be removed from a 1,000-foot-stretch along the Huron River varies according to location on the property and was determined by tests.

DTE hired Terra Contracting of Kalamazoo for the job. Terra is the same company that cleaned up the Kalamazoo River following the Enbridge pipeline spill.

The most polluted area is in the riverbed and on the riverbank directly across from where the Argo Cascades empty into the main Huron River. The top 2 to 5 feet of soil will be removed from a swath of riverbank and riverbed.


Soils from the green shaded portion and the circles indicating underground storage tanks on this site map will be removed in the current remediation project by DTE Energy.

To contain the contaminated sediment as it is dredged from the riverbed, special booms and barriers will be placed in 400-foot-long segments surrounding the activity. The barriers will be moved three times during the project, Wiesemann said.

DTE Energy will be working with the city’s Parks and Recreation Department to ensure that dredging is done when few canoeists, kayakers and tubers are on the Huron River en route from the Argo Dam to points downstream.

As the contaminated soil is scraped and dredged out, air quality will be monitored for particulate matter, volatile organic compounds and methane as a safety precaution, Wiesemann said.

Because of the nature of the waste that is being removed, people in the area may smell something similar to creosote — or if you go by Wiesemann’s nose, mothballs.

“The odor is not indicative of a health risk,” Wiesemann said.

Dirt contaminated with by-products from the manufactured gas process is not deemed as hazardous waste, Wiesemann said. The dirt from the MichCon site will be transported to the Veolia Arbor Hills Type 2 Sanitary Landfill in Northville, where it likely will be dumped over the household trash as daily cover, Wiesemann said.

Because the contaminated soil does not pose an immediate risk to human health, workers will not have to wear hazardous materials suits while working at the site. The site is considered contaminated based on long-term exposure limits for the slew of chemicals that could be in the residual waste buried on-site, Wiesemann said.

Going forward

Not all of the contaminated soils will be removed in the project, Wiesemann said. Much of the eastern half of the property in the “upland” portion of the site is covered in asphalt, and will remain that way until DTE knows what the plans are for the property.

Clean soil will be trucked in to backfill the areas that were excavated as a part of the project.

The riverbank will be graded at a more gradual slope. After the impacted soil on the shoreline is removed a cap made of composite particles and low-permeability clay will be installed as a precaution to make sure contaminants from the upland portion of the sight do not migrate to the river.

On top of the cap, about 30 inches of glacial stone and sediment will be installed to provide for erosion protection and for plant habitat.

Though Wiesemann said tests have not indicated a presence of residual contamination in the groundwater on the site, the cap serves as a precautionary measure in case there is migration of contamination in the future. Most of the contaminating materials aren’t soluble in water and would float on the surface, Wiesemann said.


Location of the MichCon site in Ann Arbor.

Courtesy of city of Ann Arbor

To mitigate the tree removal, a total of 207 trees 2 inches in diameter will be planted along the river and on an upland portion of the western half of the property. The city’s forestry department has been a consultant on that portion of the project.

DTE intends to remediate the site to residential-level standards. The utility is only required to clean up the site to industrial-level standards, but in an effort to work with the city, has agreed to clean it to a more stringent level.

However, to reach that higher standard, the project’s cost will go up. The cost for the difference between industrial-level and residential-level clean is something that DTE said will be covered through external funding sources and not passed along to ratepayers, Wiesemann said.

DTE Energy does not itself have plans to use the property at 841 Broadway St., which is currently zoned for industrial use; however, Ann Arbor officials have discussed possibly turning part of the site into a park. The property has an assessed value of $595,300 in 2012, down from $619,400 in 2011.

The city of Ann Arbor has delegated a task force to determine best future uses of the site and other properties along the Huron River corridor. The group is expected to make its recommendation at the end of December.

DTE is conducting a remediation project about 20 times larger than the Ann Arbor one at the Uniroyal site in Detroit on the Detroit River.

Throughout DTE’s work at the Broadway site in Ann Arbor, the company has had to be fairly flexible. The city had wanted to install two whitewater pools for rafters on the part of the river immediately adjacent to the site, but since they would have had to be removed as a part of the project, DTE has wrapped them into its overall project plan.

A camp of homeless people living on the western half of the site along the river also had to be removed this spring, Wiesemann said.

The project has left Wiesemann feeling more like a detective than an engineer at times.

“I’m excited to get under way,” he said Aug. 29 as he stood in a sunny portion of the site and surveyed the property. “We’ve done a lot of hard work and collaborated a lot with the city.”

The majority of the heavy construction on the site is scheduled for completion by the end of October.

Amy Biolchini covers Washtenaw County, health and environmental issues for Reach her at (734) 623-2552, or on Twitter.


Kai Petainen

Wed, Sep 12, 2012 : 1:21 a.m.

I want to give a big shout-out and a healthy dose of applause to the HRWC. They helped with this, and it's not in the article. A big thanks and congrats for a job well done.


Mon, Sep 10, 2012 : 3:19 a.m.

Lots of great ideas here. Lets build a train station, or a bunch of restaurants on a large floodplain directly below an aging dam that the DEQ and FERC think is likely to fail. Good idea everyone.


Sat, Sep 29, 2012 : 3:47 p.m.

Re: "aging dam that the DEQ and FERC think is likely to fail" -- the part of the Argo system that was of concern was the mill race, which has been mitigated. The dam itself is fine.

G. Orwell

Mon, Sep 10, 2012 : 1:44 a.m.

Park, parking structure, restaurant and a farmer's market. We need a larger farmers market. One downtown is too small and limited.

Frustrated in A2

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 10:42 p.m.

Put up something that can earn money and put money into the city tax base. You can do outdoor concerts at West Park and there are already hundreds of thousands of parks in the city plus the city is buying greenbelt land outside of the city. Let's make money off of it for the city before the university tries to scoop it up from DTE and put in a structure or take it off of the tax rolls some how.

Jay Thomas

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 8:15 p.m.

Had they decided to take down the dam this would have had to have been done first.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 6:37 p.m.

What a great place for a train station!

Kai Petainen

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 5:07 p.m.

it's actually really nice to see DTE working on this. great stuff. now.... can someone fill us in on the secret meetings that occurred in july between residents with high levels of dioxane and officials? i don't remember hearing about it in the news or the notification by the officials... i thought that sort of stuff was supposed to be open to the public... as the dioxane spreads...? thumbs up to DTE. thumbs down to PLL.

Ron Granger

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 3:37 p.m.

It is great that DTE is covering the cost of this clean-up of their property. Unfortunately, there are thousands of other contaminated sites where the corporations that made their profits cut and run. And taxpayers are left with the enormous clean-up costs - more welfare for corporations. It goes back to regulations being essential to prevent that from happening.

Basic Bob

Mon, Sep 10, 2012 : 2:32 a.m.

Agreed, but let's not stop there. The owners of the Detroit House of Corrections and the Scott Correctional Facility need to be cleaned up as well. Let's teach some current inmates a valuable job skill in demolition and redevelopment by putting them to work on these dilapidated abandoned buildings. Then have them clean up all the old industrial sites on the Detroit River. No matter who works on these projects, someone will need to buy work boots, hard hats, and safety glasses. Call it paying back your debt to society.

Ron Granger

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 10:27 p.m.

DOH!! Great point. Are they just passing this on to rate payers?

Kai Petainen

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 6:40 p.m.

you sure? utility companies are under quite a bit of regulation and i'm not sure if they can up your bill a whole lot.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 5:55 p.m.

No, YOU are paying the cost. DTE passes it on in its rate structure and it ups your utility bill.

music to my ear

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 3:22 p.m.

no comment


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 3:12 p.m.

chopped down trees that have been there for decades...disgraceful

Rod Johnson

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 4:45 p.m.

But necessary, alas.

Larry Baird

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 3:11 p.m.

The city may be overlooking an opportunity to have the ENTIRE site cleaned up to residential standards by insisting upon moving the train station. According to the state's Michigan Rail Plan of 2011, the "Brownfield Transit Oriented Development (TOD). P.A. 241 of 2010 makes TOD (infrastructure with one-half mile of a transit station, or any public or private project housing a transit station) eligible for brownfield redevelopment tax incentives.

say it plain

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 5:12 p.m.

That's a GREAT point!!! Why has the city not looked into this?! Is this even mentioned in their expensive research consultant reports about how and where to build a new transit center!?


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 3:01 p.m.

I vote for a riverside beer garden with public riverfront access. Beer gardens can be family friendly and an enjoyable place to spen summer evenings with friends and neighbors.

Kai Petainen

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 2:58 p.m.

great stuff! nice to see that they're working on this.

Soulful Adrenaline

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 2:50 p.m.

A botanical Garden!

Vince Caruso

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 2:34 p.m.

Sorry you don't discuss the option of expansion of the existing train station at this site. I know the Mayor wants to build it in Fuller Park next to UM Hospital, also a site prone to flooding (site was in the floodplain in the recently replaced 2011 flood plain map and most likely still is), to help out his employer but the station is seriously the best option by most unbiased accounts. As someone else commented - destroy a park site for a train station, and build a new park next to the current train station. Who is paying for all this? Other is the only choice in your biased poll.

Larry Baird

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 2:59 p.m.

Also, is the North Main Task force going to consider the existing station expansion option? The site is large enough to accomodate multiple uses, it does not have to be an either or proposition.

Tom Wieder

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 2:30 p.m.

Regarding future uses of the property: It is not landlocked, as one commenter stated; it has road access from Broadway near the north end of the bridge. That's how it has been accessed for years. There is also pedestrian-only access directly from the bridge. Unfortunately, development potential is somewhat limited on much of the site, because it lies in an unbuildable flood plain. Park use of some sort is probably the best, and perhaps only, use of that portion. That could include an outdoor concert venue. The easternmost portion of the site, adjacent to the bridge, is buildable. I think this would be an excellent location for a variety of uses, including some, such as a restaurant, which would enable people to enjoy the river in good weather and bad and beyond daylight hours. Waterfronts in so many cities are vibrant activity centers year-round and many hours of the day. Ours is used in a much more limited way its entire length.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 4:49 p.m.

@Tom --- I agree with you that most of Ann Arbor's Huron River waterfront is parkland or the UM nature preserve we know as the Arboretum. That buildable portion you describe along the Broadway Bridge... could be the intermodal transit station. Multilevel car park, cycle lockers, dedicated shuttle / AATA stops and taxi stands. Moving to the Western edge gives advantages of being able to access BOTH rail lines with upper and lower platforms. Not cheap, but also not impossible.

Rod Johnson

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 4:45 p.m.

Big thumbs up here--no reason urbanity and the river can't intersect at some point.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 2:57 p.m.

Think about Martin's building on Depot Street.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 1:43 p.m.

This sounds like a great place to build a train station, some commercial office space, and maybe starter/low income housing. It is also a premium waterfront property that could be good for waterfront restaurants and housing however is close to two active rail lines. The north side of Ann Arbor is underutilized, and this area could catapult that into a developed area - an untapped option to help curb sprawl

Dog Guy

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 1:36 p.m.

$3M seems inadequate for this cleanup; the project manager is either very good or very bad. In comparison, the city would spend at least $3M just on contracted studies of the site.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 5:02 p.m.

Johnnya2, government more often than not screws things up. Why do you assume competence from an entity filled with incompetence??


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 4:59 p.m.

The difference is one does things to get it done properly, the other is a company trying to do something on the cheap. Do the bare minimum and then in another decade they will need to do more.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 2:55 p.m.

The difference is professionals spending company money, not politicos spending yours!

G. Orwell

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 1:16 p.m.

It would make sense to have a park and parking structure to accommodate train passengers. Also update and expand the train station. Even adding a restaurant next to the parking structure may not be a bad idea. Gandy Dancer could use some competition. Food is not that great. The Grand Concourse in Pittsberg, owned by the same restaurateur, is far better. I don't understand why there is a big difference between the two restaurants.

Ron Granger

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 3:34 p.m.

Amtrak is a corporation. If Romney wins the election, we many find all federal funding cut. Amtrak will go bust (even more bust!), or be privatized. I don't think we should re-configure out city around a train. I'd much prefer to keep railroad station sprawl to a minimum. In fact, I'd prefer the rail station not consume great downtown real estate. Move it further out. I don't see why it should be in the city at all. Move it out into the county.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 12:56 p.m.

the park idea would be great except its landlocked by the rail line for access....the city will hire the experts im sure for hundreds of thousands of dollars to simply say "the railroad will not negotiate with us".


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 9:28 p.m.

again...."the railroad will not negotiate"


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 6:44 p.m.

Kai, I have heard talk of looking in to doing just that. The idea would have multiple motives. Primary motive would be to lower the floodplain along depot street around Wheeler park, as this floodplain is actually increased because the tracks block off flow toward the river. If a tunnel were properly positioned it could potentially lowers the flood plain by several feet. Studies as to the effectiveness of this strategy would have to be carried out, and if it could be demonstrated to lower it enough then the city could get FEMA funding for the project. Then they could look in to the possibility of making the tunnel a pedestrian path as well, which would not be feasible on it's own without the funding to affect the floodplain. Even then however, there would be issues of parking on the Depot street side, and the private properties that the path would have to cross to get to the tunnel. Perhaps a change in floodplain insurance could be leveraged to allow some pedestrian easement, but it sounds like it could still be a complicated proposition. So your idea may not be that far-fetched, but we'll have to wait and see.

Kai Petainen

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 3:04 p.m.

could you make a tunnel under the tracks, or would that be easily flooded?


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 12:43 p.m.

Donate the property to the homeless. Present them with $10million in brownfield development grants and $10million in City tax rebates to help them build their new "Landmark Take Notice" homeless shelterm complete with riverside BBQ joint - world renowned for its original Ann Arbor cuisine - Lillypad burrito surprise and BBQ cityhall-style catfish.

Linda Peck

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 12:37 p.m.

In a flood plain, a walkable parkland makes the most sense. Nature will repair herself along the river and when the river overflows, people can simply step out of the way. Win-Win!


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 4:51 p.m.

@bOzO - I've heard such reasoning applied to the park at Liberty and Division.

Rod Johnson

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 4:43 p.m.

Agreed, to some extent. I still can't get over how poorly this city uses the riverfront, though. Why not some sort of San Antonio Riverwalk thing?


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 2:22 p.m.

BernieP- the simple answer to your question is the fact that more people will us the area and it will no longer be attractive to the homeless.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 1:19 p.m.

If a park, what will be done to prevent from returning to the vagrant camp that it was before the cleanup began?


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 11:54 a.m.

Looks like a great location for an intermodal transit station. Rail / Bus / Cycles / Shuttles into downtown. The potential for flooding can be planned for and managed.

Greg Mazure

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 10:33 p.m.

I agree totally. A train/ bus station makes the most sense. The parking could be built above the flood plain. Sooner or later they will need to have two tracks if we want to have a true rail service. A restaurant near the train station would be great. All this built with access to the wonderful river trail that is still expanding.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 1:44 p.m.

Agree - missed your post earlier


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 12:38 p.m.

Don't forget the Tomorrowland monorail.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 11:50 a.m.

Broadway Street,l? Site... Very informative, thanks.


Mon, Sep 10, 2012 : 8:58 a.m.

Yeah, it kind of set the tone for a poorly written article.

Rod Johnson

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 4:41 p.m.



Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 11:48 a.m.

Just where do they plan to put the contaminated dirt they hall off. Jf stated in the article I missed it. It doesn't seem to make sense to me to dig it up in one spot and move it to another site .Sort of like robbing Peter to pay Paul!

Kyle Mattson

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 4:44 p.m.

OldT- I believe this process of fill replacement is very standard as the same is being done for the Uniroyal site being cleaned up along the Detroit river with the contaminated dirt being exchanged with clean fill from one of the landfills in Canton.

Ron Granger

Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 3:31 p.m.

"It doesn't seem to make sense to me to dig it up in one spot and move it to another site " Moving it where it cannot contaminate the river river and water system seems product. Kinda like how we get rid of the garbage at home - you can't leave it in the kitchen forever.


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 1:32 p.m.

" The dirt from the MichCon site will be transported to the Veolia Arbor Hills Type 2 Sanitary Landfill in Northville, where it likely will be dumped over the household trash as daily cover, Wiesemann said"


Sun, Sep 9, 2012 : 10:36 a.m.

Thanks for the very thorough and informative article.