State’s Toxic Avenger, ’Mr. Clean,’ steps down

By Dave Dempsey

The man who oversaw over $1 billion of publicly funded toxic cleanups in Michigan left the state service two weeks ago. He’s a guy most people have never heard of, but should.

Lansing’s own Andy Hogarth retired after 40 years of service to the state. His final role was chief of the cleanup division of the Department of Environmental Quality — or in bureaucratic-speak, the DEQ’s Remediation and Redevelopment Division.

Beginning work with what was then called the Department of Conservation in the 1960s, Hogarth toiled for what was later called the Department of Natural Resources, and then the DEQ. In an interesting irony, as he retired, the Legislature was debating a proposal to put the DEQ and DNR back together. Its new name? The Department of Conservation.

But while the name of the agency might go back in time, nothing else about the work Hogarth oversaw is the same as in 1969. In that era, dumping chemicals "out back" or in some forlorn swamp miles away was standard industrial practice. In fact, in the 1950s, the state itself promoted the discharge of some chemicals into the ground, assuming (with the help of the best science then available) that soils would cleanse the toxins.

Big mistake.

This practice, poor handling and storage of chemicals and petroleum, and midnight dumping led to at least one officially declared toxic emergency and, over time, more than 10,000 contamination sites across Michigan. While they are largely forgotten now, Michigan media and the public 25 years ago were appalled by and fixated on some of the worst sites:

• At the Berlin and Farro landfill near Flint, lethal chemicals were poured into a giant hole in the ground, causing fires, sickening fumes, and ultimately a fullfledged evacuation.

• At Hooker Chemical’s Montague plant near Lake Michigan, the company resisted state inspections until an informant finally detailed the reckless practice of dumping barrels of waste chemicals into a low spot behind the plant. The state sued the company to force a $15 million cleanup, including the construction of an aboveground burial vault for contaminated soils that will surely baffle some future archaeologist.

• A mile-and-a-half long underground "plume" of contamination from the old Motor Wheel site in north Lansing once put a portion of the city’s water source, wells beneath our feet, at risk.

No one will know how many Michiganders suffered the health effects of exposure to toxic dumps and other waste sites. In fact, industry scientists and mouthpieces often contend there is no proof that "even one person" died from such exposure. Given the difficulty of tying any one chemical exposure to any one long-lived person’s mortality, that is both correct and not the point. The hidden drama is that thousands of us have probably experienced subtle effects — disruption of our immune systems, problems with childhood brain development, and others.

Enter Andy Hogarth and his generation of public servants. Armed with new laws and repeated infusions of cash from the voters, including more than $300 million in a 1988 bond and another $300 million-plus in a 1998 bond, these men and women began the monumental task of overseeing the cleanup process. Along the way, they battled recalcitrant polluters responsible for giant messes, facing them down in dozens of cases — and sometimes being overruled by politicians who catered to the influential corporations.

Andy was one of those never cowed by menacing lobbyists for the very parties who had put Michigan’s health and treasury at risk. In one of his most courageous acts, he resisted Engler Administration pressure to withhold information about widespread dioxin contamination in the Saginaw River watershed caused by Dow Chemical. Although Dow has successfully held environmental agencies at bay for a quarter-century, some kind of cleanup is more likely than ever because Andy wouldn’t play ball with the polluters.

In a recent lunch conversation in Old Town, Andy reminisced about the good and bad times with his usual quiet humor and thoughfulness. He also made it clear the job he started is not done — thousands of contamination sites remain, although there is precious little money to pay for their "remediation." He also observed that Michigan doesn’t take its groundwater seriously enough — a resource that could be a competitive advantage for a struggling state is instead a checkerboard of clean and contaminated.

Andy’s nickname should have been "Mr. Clean," not just for the work he did, but for the ethics of public service he embodied. Let’s hope the next generation of cleanup troops heeds his example.

(Dave Dempsey advised Gov. James Blanchard on environmental policy from 1983 to 1989. He is author of a book on Michigan’s conservation history and is communications director for the nonprofit organization Conservation Minnesota.)