State, federal air sampling hasn't identified any immediate health concerns around new Jeep plant

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Air sampling done by state and federal regulators around the new Jeep plant in Detroit identified no immediate health concerns, but the agencies noted limited data is available and that odors can cause temporary negative symptoms.

Responses from residents at a virtual public presentation Thursday night ranged from frustrated to emotional. Stellantis NV last year received four air-quality violations from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy pertaining to odors affecting neighbors by the Mack Assembly Plant on Detroit's east side and for missing ducting to pollution controls in part of its paint shop at Mack and at the Warren Truck Assembly Plant that is required by its air-quality permits.

Operations in the paint shop at Stellantis’ Detroit Assembly Complex-Mack plant.

"After reviewing the air sampling data, we did not find any short-term or long-term health risks," said Brandon Reid, a toxicologist with Michigan Department of Health and Human Services. "So in other words, the levels of chemicals from the data were not high enough to cause an increased risk of health effects.

"But I do want to note that the data that we have here is pretty limited, and we do also want to address that foul odors like the ones reported by residents near Stellantis are a nuisance, and they can cause temporary health symptoms that worsen quality of life like headaches and nausea and irritation whether respiratory, irritating your lungs or irritating your eyes or even your throat."

EGLE has said Stellantis will be subject to a monetary penalty and an enforceable compliance plan, which still is in the works and will be subject to public comment possibly in early summer. The department is "working as fast as possible," said Jenine Camilleri, the department's air quality enforcement supervisor.

Steps to address odors are in motion. Stellantis in December installed the missing ducting at Mack, which assembles the two- and three-row Jeep Grand Cherokee SUVs, and says it will do so at Warren, home of the Wagoneer, Grand Wagoneer and Ram Classic pickup, by February.

Earlier this month, it also filed the results of an investigation into the cause of moderate and strong smells around Mack conducted by third-party engineering firms, which found a high frequency of odor concentrations coming from the plant. Stellantis says it will install more emissions controls, though the timing is subject to a permitting process with EGLE.

EGLE, MDHHS and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency all have conducted air sampling around the Mack plant. MDHHS says it will release a full report of all of the findings from data collected and provide guidance for residents.

The findings didn't suggest any immediate health effects, but Reid emphasized the data is only a snapshot in time and has its limits. The results also were found to be under available odor thresholds, though not all compounds have a threshold.

K.T. Andresky is a teacher of a gardening class at the nonprofit Capuchin Soup Kitchen near the plant. She told the presenter a student had an asthma attack in the garden last summer when odors were present.

"I'm concerned about my students' health, because we work outside and in the garden and it's right across the street from Stellantis, and a lot of times the wind is blowing in that direction," Andresky said. "Can I tell my students honestly that it's safe for them to be in the garden and in the garden class, and should I be concerned about the (volatile organic compounds) or other toxins settling into our garden soil?"

Reid was unable to provide a definitive response, noting foul odors can trigger asthma: "I don't think I can make that kind of assessment right now about whether you should have classes outdoors or not."

Reid emphasized: "While odor nuisances do not cause chronic or long-lasting health impacts, we at MDHHS still take them very seriously. They are not acceptable, and they do worsen the quality of life."

He added that comparison figures MDHHS used are meant to protect residents to the most significant extent.

"They are intended to be protective of everybody," he said. "That's every sensitive population that you can think of whether that's someone with pre-existing conditions, whether that's someone who's elderly, someone who is very young, children, infants, whether that's people who are pregnant — everybody is included in that."

EGLE has received 64 complaints about odors since July, said Bob Byrnes, EGLE air-quality inspector. Complaints peaked in September with 21 complaints and have since decreased to two in January.

"The good news here," he said, "is that the number of complaints appear to be tracking in the right direction."

Emissions of volatile organic compounds, which can become the toxic gas ozone in the atmosphere, reported by Stellantis were below the limits of its state-issued permits at Mack and the adjacent Jefferson North Assembly Plant, which produced the Jeep Grand Cherokee and Dodge Durango SUVs.

"I did not identify any emissions violations," Byrnes said.

Sampling conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency's mobile monitor platform didn't observe reportable levels of hydrogen sulfide, benzene, toluene and p-xylene. It also measured background concentrations of methane, which doesn't have a benchmark, "because it's considered biologically inert at these low concentrations, but can be hazardous at very high levels," said Marta Fuoco, an EPA scientist.

The EPA placed additional canisters to detect VOCs at sites where field staff observed odors. These tests identified nine compounds, but all concentrations were below levels of health concerns, Fuoco said.

Several Detroiters living around the plant expressed frustrations over the results presented: "I'm extremely upset," said Eden Kasmala, an impact zone resident and public education coordinator for the nonprofit Detroit People's Platform, which has advocated for residents concerned about the plants.

"I'm very confused by the fact that it seems like there's been an entire caveat to this conversation, which is that there's not enough data to determine what you've spent the past hour talking about."

EGLE encouraged residents to call (800) 292-4706 when they experience any odors so the agency can investigate as soon as possible. The department is working with the Office of Environmental Justice public advocate to obtain more tools that could provide more information to the public when a company is looking to open a plant or other industrial development in an underrepresented community, said Jenifer Dixon, air quality liaison for EGLE's Environmental Support Division.

She acknowledged other states have more robust environmental justice regulation to address such concerns.

"We just don't have that right now," Dixon said. "Working with our legislature to get some of those enacted is going to be definitely something of a next step."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble