Feds probe civil rights complaint against EGLE over Kalamazoo plant

Carol Thompson
The Detroit News

Federal environmental regulators are investigating a civil rights complaint against the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy regarding its oversight of a Kalamazoo paper packaging plant and officials' treatment of a local activist. 

Brandi Crawford-Johnson filed the complaint with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Sept. 1. She alleged state environmental regulators discriminated against predominately African American neighborhoods surrounding the plant by approving an air permit for Graphic Packaging International last year.

The permit allowed Graphic Packaging International to expand "despite several reported violations of non-compliance" with federal air quality standards, the EPA's response to her complaint states.

EGLE is "reviewing the complaint and looks forward to participating in the process to better protect environmental justice communities," spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said in a statement.

Federal environmental regulators are investigating a civil rights complaint against the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy regarding its oversight of a Kalamazoo paper packaging plant and officials' treatment of a local activist.

Graphic Packaging International's plant in Kalamazoo produces paper-based packaging for items like cups, cartons, boxes and food containers.

It has occasionally come under scrutiny from regulators. The company began installing two boilers before earning approval from the state last year, prompting state environmental regulators to issue a violation notice. The state ultimately approved the company's request for an air permit allowing it to expand, but required the company to continue monitoring for hydrogen sulfide and shut down a boiler in 2022 to reduce its overall greenhouse gas emissions.

Graphic Packaging's neighbors have complained about odors and raised concerns about hydrogen sulfide emissions for the last decade, state environmental and health department said in an October presentation. The state has cited Graphic Packaging eight times since 2012 for odor violations based on public complaints.

Federal air quality monitors did not uncover major hydrogen sulfide pollution during a three-day survey in May, although they did observe distinct bad odors.

Crawford-Johnson lived near the plant for almost a decade and in that time experienced severe asthma and burning eyes, as did many of her neighbors, she said. She recently moved to another community.

She started raising alarm bells about the plant in 2018, including purchasing billboards referring to her community as a "sacrifice zone." Last year, she and neighbors filed a lawsuit against the company in federal district court in western Michigan, arguing the company caused noxious odors and particulate fallout including calcite, dust, ash, and/or dirt to fall on their properties.

The company denied those allegations this spring in a motion to dismiss the case. It said EGLE should continue handling oversight issues, not the court.

"To be clear, GPI disputes that any “noxious odors” or 'air particulates' are emanating from its facility in violation of the law or its air permit, but the Court need not and should not decide that issue now (if ever)," company attorneys wrote.

Crawford-Johnson is frustrated and disillusioned by local, state and federal agencies' responses to her complaints. She said she is "relieved" federal compliance officers are looking into the state's oversight of the plant.

"This has made me realize I can't trust any single person who is involved as a leader, a politician, an environmental protection agency, whether it be state or fed," she said. "People have their own agendas. They should have not looked the other way this long."

EPA compliance officers also will investigate whether state regulators "retaliated against or intimidated" Crawford-Johnson last year for allegedly asking her not to file a civil rights complaint against the state.

Crawford-Johnson said an environmental justice official for EGLE asked her "what will it take for you not to file a civil rights complaint?" during a Zoom meeting last November. She understood the question as an attempted bribe.

"I said 'you could give me $5 million right now and it wouldn't stop me from wanting everything to be fixed, for something to happen, for the residents to be relocated or Graphic Packaging to be shut down," Crawford-Johnson said.

Crawford-Johnson filed her complaint with the EPA under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which requires federal agencies to ensure programs receiving federal funding, including states, don't discriminate based on race, color or national origin. Environmental justice issues can fall within Title VI.

EPA compliance officers declined to accept Crawford-Johnson's complaint against Kalamazoo County — which she also contends discriminated against the neighborhood when it approved Graphic Packaging International's facility site plan in 2019 — because she did not file it within 180 days of the approval.

Compliance officers have 180 days to investigate her complaints and issue preliminary findings. 

The office will "engage with recipients and complainants promptly to discuss resolution" of the civil rights complaint, spokesperson Taylor Gillespie said in a statement. Its acceptance of the complaint does not indicate a civil rights violation occurred, just that the complaint met jurisdictional criteria.