EGLE hits new Jeep plant in Detroit with 2nd violation for chemical emissions

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

The state of Michigan has issued a second violation against the new Jeep plant in Detroit, this time for insufficient controls on chemical emissions, and it's giving more ammunition to residents around the plant who have health concerns.

Staff of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy's Air Quality Division during an inspection on Oct. 12 and 13 observed in the Mack Assembly Plant's paint shop volatile organic compound emissions that were not being ducted to a regenerative thermal oxidizer, a system that destroys such compounds, which can be health hazards, according to the violation. The control is a requirement of Stellantis NV's air-quality permit.

Beniteau Street residents Tammy Hurt, 55, and Derrell Sistrong, 63, voice their support for greater scrutiny on the new Jeep plant next to their street after the state issued an emissions violation against it.

The violation comes after the plant that assembles the new Jeep Grand Cherokee L three-row SUV received an EGLE violation in September for moderate and strong odors coming from its new paint shop. Residents living along Beniteau Street bordering the plant — some who now look upon the facility from their backyards — have complained about chemical and metallic smells from the plant and irritations to eyes and skin since it began producing vehicles. They have petitioned the company and protested at its events, demanding the automaker do more to protect its neighbors.

"My breathing, it's worse than it used to be," Tammy Hurt, 55, who's lived on Beniteau for almost 16 years, said during a demonstration outside the plant on Wednesday with a sign reading, "Environmental Justice for All."

The smell "makes you sick to your stomach," she said. "It's nasty, strong, very stinky."

Stellantis must correct the violation situation and submit a written response to EGLE by Nov. 10 with an explanation of the causes and duration of the violation, what actions it is taking to correct the violation and how it will prevent a recurrence.

"Stellantis has received a notice from EGLE related to ducting requirements in a particular area of the Mack paint shop," Stellantis spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said in a statement. "The plant has been and continues to be in full compliance with the permitted emissions limits. We will work to address this issue promptly."

The Mack plant has been down since Monday due to a global shortage of microchips. It is slated to resume production on Thursday.

Stellantis expanded the site of a partially idled engine plant on Detroit's east side into a $1.6 billion assembly plant that now employs nearly 5,000 people on three shifts. It began delivering the three-row Grand Cherokees in June to dealerships. With $900 million in updates forthcoming for the adjacent Jefferson North Assembly Plant, the city and state supported the projects with hundreds of millions of dollars in incentives.

"With the jobs, the new roofs on houses, the repaired sidewalks, it's moving us to be a better place than where we were," said Curtis Perry, a member of the project's Neighborhood Advisory Council who negotiated with the automaker and city about what to do in the neighborhood in exchange for the incentives. He said he was going to look into the emissions data from the state and company following the violation.

In response to the initial odor violation, Stellantis earlier this month said it had hired a third-party investigation firm to look into the source of the smell. It also was conducting its own internal investigation, adding a routine monitoring program, implementing some new protocols in its paint shop and setting up a hotline for residents to call. More information is expected to be available on that soon as the automaker works out some technical issues. That response from the company, issued a day prior to EGLE's inspection, made no mention about the lack of ducting to the regenerative thermal oxidizer.

"It is important to note that the emission control systems at the facility are operating properly and in compliance with the air permit conditions," Michael Brieda, Mack's plant manager, said in the company's response to the EGLE at the time.

The automaker has said the Mack plant has the lowest volatile organic compound emissions rate of any U.S. assembly plant in the country. VOCs create ozone, a toxic gas, when they combine with the atmosphere.

Southeast Michigan already is a non-attainment region with high levels of ozone, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. That prevents new ozone-producing activities in the region. To open the Mack Assembly Plant, the automaker agreed to reduce emissions at its Warren Truck Assembly Plant. With the updates to Warren, there is a more than 30% reduction in VOC emissions in the non-attainment region, according to Stellantis.

Mack's majority Black, low-income 48214 ZIP code has one of the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the city, according to a 2016 report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

As a part of its city-required community benefits agreement with residents, the automaker has paid $1.8 million to the city's Housing & Revitalization Department, which is distributing home repair grants up to $15,000 to residents near the plant meant for critical repairs, including air filtration, lead abatement, roofing replacement and remediation.

Beniteau Street resident Kenneth Halloway, 64, calls on Stellantis NV to do more for residents living next to the plant.

"A new roof will cost $12,000 of that," said Kenneth Halloway, 64, whose family has lived on Beniteau for 55 years. He took his wife to urgent care a few days ago for breathing issues.

"All we get is a banana in the tailpipe over here. We need to be made whole again. ... They give us crumbs and expect to fix up our homes. ... If you can't make us whole, buy us out. ... We're just tired."

The Detroit People's Platform is supporting Beniteau residents in their plea for more money for home repairs, a bigger buffer between the plant and neighborhood and funds to relocate if they want.

Anthony Adams, a candidate for mayor who was present at the demonstration, said he supported an effort to use city and corporate funds to buy 50 or 60 houses in the neighborhood: "People need to be relocated," he told The Detroit News. "They're too close to the industrial site."

Prior to to the city distributing the home repair grants, a survey conducted by the Detroit People's Platform determined about 40% of homes in the impact zone didn't have air conditioning.

"They can't shut their windows," said Eden Kasmala, the nonprofit's public education coordinator and an impact zone resident. "They are exposed to this stuff 24/7 when the weather's nice."

The automaker a year ago installed an ambient air-quality station on the Mack property, which was in response to the community’s request for more accurate and reliable data that reflects the air quality on the east side of Detroit. Stellantis provides that information to the state, but not directly to the public, which it has said it's considering.

Beniteau Street resident Robert Shobe, 59, worries about the health implications of the new Jeep plant in Detroit following an emissions violation issued by the state.

Beniteau resident Robert Shobe, 59, has installed his own sensor on his property behind the Mack plant's new paint shop. Although a majority of the time the sensor registers the air quality index at a safe level below 50, that value has spiked as high as 716 in the past week, its data show. Values above 300 are considered a "health warning of emergency conditions," and people are likely to experience health effects with 24 hours of exposure.

"What are we supposed to do? Sit here and die?" Shobe said. "You build something on top of somebody like this, you shouldn't force anybody to stay here because of their lack of resources or means or anything like that. This wouldn't happen in any other community."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble