MARQUETTE - Members of the group that agreed years ago to purchase the former Cliffs Dow property on behalf of the city have said they had no way of knowing the site would require so much environmental remediation.
"If you go back in the record you'll find that was probably the most studied property in the state at that point," said former City Manager Gerald Peterson. "The city had been counseled by a very qualified environmental attorney. The city consulted with the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality), who had regulatory oversight. All of this convinced the city it was taking reasonable risks when it took ownership of that property."
During the last few years, the city has been undertaking monitoring and remediation work on the site at the request of the DEQ. A major concern is that underground contaminants could spread from the property east into Lake Superior.
The Cliffs Dow property in Marquette, seen here, was purchased by the city commission in 1997 for $1. Former city representatives have said they had no way of anticipating the depth of contamination on the property. (Journal file photo)
Last summer, the city excavated a portion of the site - located to the west of Lakeshore Boulevard and south of Hawley Street - and uncovered cast iron piping, concrete footings, a wooden trench structure and pools of wood tar.
In total, the city moved more than 800 cubic yards of contaminated soil from the former industrial site to the Marquette County Landfill.
Earlier this week, the city commission heard a recommendation from its environmental counsel to continue groundwater monitoring but to wait on any major remediation.
In the long term, the attorney warned, further remediation efforts could cost the city in excess of $1.5 million.
Cameron Howes was Marquette's mayor in October of 1997, when the city commission agreed unanimously to pay $1 to Marquette Properties II LLC - a partnership of the Dow Chemical Co., Georgia-Pacific Corp. and the former Cleveland-Cliffs Iron Co. - in exchange for the 77-acre parcel.
He said the property was purchased in good faith and that one goal was to transfer ownership of 27 acres of the land to Northern Michigan University - that move took place the following year.
"Hindsight is better than foresight," Howes said. "With the technology, I think, and the information we had available at the time, it was a good move for the city. Close to 50 acres of lakeshore property is a valuable piece of property."
The property was used for industrial purposes for decades. Most notably, the Cliffs Dow Chemical Co. - comprised of Cleveland Cliffs and the Dow Chemical Co. - used the site from 1935 to 1968 to produce charcoal, methanol, acetic acid, wood creosote and other chemicals.
Wood tar, a byproduct of the site's operations, was disposed of on-site and is the main contaminant still remaining.
In 1968 the Cliffs Dow Chemical Co. was sold to Georgia-Pacific and E.L. Bruce companies, which changed the company name to Royal Oak Charcoal.
The wood chemical refining process continued at the site until the plant closed in 1969. In 1995, Marquette Properties II purchased the land.
Dale Hemmila served as a spokesman for Marquette Properties II in 1997. He said the city had been provided with a plethora of data about the history of the property.
"They had a lot of information, quite frankly. The city had a lot of information," he said. "When we went through this process, we disclosed everything we knew. They had all of that information when they made the decision to purchase that property."
Frank Sciotto, who served on the commission in 1997, said he cast his vote on advice from those who had studied the property and the proposal.
"At the time, when we bought the thing for $1, there was no thought in my mind that there was that depth of contamination out there," he said. "I never dreamt in a lifetime that these things would come up to this degree."
In recent meetings, current commissioners have mentioned the possibility of attempting to call the former owners of the property to a meeting to discuss responsibility for the contamination.
The city's agreement to purchase the land, however, included a clause holding Marquette Properties II harmless for any future remediation.
"As far as I know, based on the contract we have with the city, if we are contacted, we are indemnified by the city of Marquette," Hemmila said.
The city has not yet decided on what will be done with the land, once they receive development approval from the DEQ.
"(The purchase) seemed to be certainly a reasonable decision," said Peterson, who is now serving as the city administrator in Oak Creek, Wis. "The city was getting a very valuable piece of lakefront property that clearly was a contaminated property and had some potential risk. They viewed that as a reasonable risk."
Kyle Whitney can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250.