Buick City, a massive industrial site in Flint, Michigan, has been largely vacant since the last of its manufacturing plants were shuttered in the wake of GM’s 2009 bankruptcy. Today, Lear Corporation occupies a 33-acre parcel (of roughly 400 total acres) in the site’s southwest corner, a rare success story in RACER Trust’s attempts to remarket the property. Sales of additional lots are now temporarily on hold, as PFAS contamination has been discovered in a series of test wells across the site.
Formed by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court in March 2011, the mission of RACER (which stands for Revitalizing Auto Communities Environmental Response) Trust is “to clean up and revitalize former GM locations,” which include roughly 60 properties and 1,000 acres spread across 14 states. This work is funded by the $500 million RACER Trust was granted at its founding, and the cleanup work is carried out in cooperation with state and federal authorities.
Per Michigan Live, RACER Trust has allocated $33 million for the cleanup of the Buick City property, which – after the 33 acres claimed by Lear and 16 acres by other companies – still measures 364 acres. The recent detection of PFAS (Per- and Polyfluorinated Alkylated Substances) at elevated levels means the rest of the property is off the market until RACER can get a better understanding of the contamination and develop a plan for remediation. The state of Michigan allows 70 parts per trillion (ppt) of PFAS in groundwater, and of eight test wells at the site, three delivered elevated readings. During the first test in April 2018, one well returned a reading of 614 ppt, while follow-up testing in August detected levels as high as 767 ppt.
The state asserts these chemicals pose no threat to drinking water, since buildings on or near the site would be supplied with water from the municipal system (issues with elevated levels of lead in Fint’s water aside). No residential wells are in close proximity to the plant, and groundwater from the site flows in a direction away from these aquifers. Instead, the immediate threat is runoff from the property and its storm sewers, which flow into the Flint River. Past discharges from storm sewers have included other pollutants, but thus far no PFAS.
The most common members of the PFAS family include PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid) and PFOS perfluorooctanesulfonic acid), compounds that have been manufactured worldwide since the 1940s and are were in a variety of industrial applications. The chemicals lower the surface tension of water, and both PFOA and PFOS have been used in the manufacturing of aqueous film forming foams (AFFF), used in firefighting to combat flammable liquid fires. The Buick City site once contained a firefighting training center where AFFF was thought to have been deployed, making this the likely source of the contamination.
Once in the soil, or in the human body, PFAS compounds are difficult to get rid of. In general, the chemicals are known to produce low birth weights, increased cholesterol levels and compromised immune systems, while PFOAs have been linked to several cancers. PFOS compounds have been shown to impact thyroid function.
RACER Trust will continue to market the Buick City property, even if sales of parcels are temporarily halted. Lear’s plant, the first new auto supplier manufacturing plant to open in Flint since the 1980s, could potentially employ as many as 600 workers once fully ramped up. Other plans discussed for the site – but not yet finalized – include a 140-acre “environmentally friendly” industrial park with light industrial and warehousing space, which could provide another 300 jobs.