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Community activist and hazardous waste sign reunited after 28 years

DNR Sign recently foundJuly 16, 2019

In April 1991, Cooper Elementary School students were playing outside in the spring weather, as they had for 160 years since their school was built, when Livonia Public Schools (LPS) officials got a letter -- a really scary letter -- from the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). Back then, the state's environmental programs were all under the DNR. The letter said that the soil at Cooper Elementary School in Westland was contaminated with dangerously high levels of the banned carcinogenic pesticide DDT, along with arsenic, mercury, and other pesticides. School officials were given 15 days to start cleaning up the contamination at a potential cost of millions of dollars.

Cooper Elementary School immediately closed, and 350 students were moved into a junior high school across the street. The site was fenced and signs like the one pictured -- No Entry, Hazardous Substances -- were posted to keep people away from the contaminated soil. That bought some time for the LPS, DNR, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to figure out how a school district could possibly pay for a multimillion-dollar environmental cleanup.

When mom Katherine Parè found out her neighborhood elementary school was contaminated, she went into action. She wrote letters, made phone calls, and traveled to Washington, D.C. to meet with federal officials. Ms. Parè even left a letter at a Livonia hotel where President George H. W. Bush was staying while on a 1992 campaign stop, asking for the EPA's help with the investigation and cleanup. It worked! And Parè asked for only one thing in return. When the site was safe and the fence came down, she wanted one of those No Entry, Hazardous Substances signs. She was promised a sign by no fewer than two DNR staff, one DNR director, one governor, and two U.S. presidents.

She figured Cooper School might be cleaned up to safe levels by the time her grandchildren graduated from high school. Well, that first grandchild graduates in a couple of years, and Parè called the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) looking for her sign. Nearly everyone who worked on the project has either retired or passed away and none of the staff was aware of the sign promised to Parè. But after hearing her story, EGLE staff member Lois Elliott Graham promised to track down that sign if one still existed. Lois contacted EGLE's Brownfield program who in turn reached out to the Warren District office looking for help.

In the early 1990s, the DNR had spun off environmental programs to the new Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), and the DEQ now has recently become EGLE. It was not too likely we'd have an almost 30-year-old sign with another department's name on it. Well, either our EGLE storage space doesn't get cleaned too often or that sign sparked joy for someone, because Warren District staff member Kevin Wojciechowski found it. In April, the sign was sent to Parè at her new home in North Carolina, 28 years after the LPS got that letter from the DNR and Parè became an environmental activist.

Many thanks to EGLE staff Kevin Wojciechowski, Lois Elliott Graham, Beth Vens, Jerry Tiernan, and Jeff Hukill, who worked with Parè and found an original sign in the Warren District office's storage room.