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Hazardous waste facility’s expansion prompts worries

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

The expansion of operations at a hazardous waste facility in Detroit near the Hamtramck border has raised safety questions among some of those who live in or represent the area.

Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality is considering a new permit for U.S. Ecology, located on Georgia Street near the city’s border with Hamtramck. The site, zoned for heavy industrial, has been used to treat and store waste products, including hazardous materials, for nearly 20 years.

But U.S. Ecology now wants to seriously increase the amount of waste it can take in and keep on premises. If approved, the new DEQ permit would allow the company to increase its hazardous waste storage from the current equivalent of 64,000 gallons to 650,000 gallons — a tenfold increase.

In addition, the permit would allow for a 27 percent rise in U.S. Ecology’s daily treatment capacity from 144,000 gallons to 182,460 gallons. To meet the increased storage and treatment needs, the company would construct two new buildings, one a 20,000-square-foot structure and the other a 10,000-square foot facility.

While the expansion would stay within the overall footprint of U.S. Ecology’s property and continue the same kind of operation that has been conducted on-site for years, the idea of more waste coming into downtown does not sit well with some.

“Of course there is concern when you’re going to increase the amount of hazardous waste being transported, treated and stored in the area you’re in,” said the Rev. Gerald T. Miller, whose congregation at Elyton Baptist Church meets less than a half-mile away. “There’s a concern that it’s done properly.”

State Rep. Rose Mary Robinson lent her own voice to the issue last week, calling for an extension of the state’s public input period concerning the permit application. DEQ recently announced the period would be extended roughly one month — the second extension — until Oct. 12.

“Detroit should not be the dumping ground and storage site for hazardous waste across the country,” said Robinson, D-Detroit, in a press release last week. “Residents should have their say on whether or not this expansion should be allowed.”

Dave Crumrine, a spokesman for U.S. Ecology said the expansion of the facility is necessary to keep pace with increased needs of industry in the region.

“As automotive, manufacturing and other industrial companies in Michigan grow, the amount of byproducts they produce also increases, and safe and responsible treatment facilities like this one are vital to ensuring the waste is handled in a safe and compliant manner,” he said. “The company has been safely operating in Detroit for 40 years and in order to continue serving the community, permit renewals and modifications are an important part of the process.”

The waste taken in by U.S. Ecology at its Detroit facility includes both solids and wastewater, with 60 percent to 70 percent coming from Michigan. Materials do not stay indefinitely, but are held until it is treated for final disposal off-site.

For U.S. Ecology, this will be the second time in a year the company has dealt with public criticism over its operations. Last year, concerns centered on its Wayne Disposal Inc. facility just off I-94 in Belleville and that operation’s handling of hydraulic fracturing sludge from out of state. Wayne Disposal is one of 17 sites in the nation qualified to handle such wastes, categorized as technologically enhanced naturally occurring radioactive material.

In response, the company agreed to halt a shipment of fracking waste from Pennsylvania until a panel appointed by Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder had conducted a review of the situation. In February, after four months of review, U.S. Ecology’s operation in was given the go-ahead to accept the shipment.

At the Detroit facility, Crumrine said U.S. Ecology does accept “a small amount” of the low-level radioactive material that is ultimately shipped to other facilities for final disposal.

The Dearborn-based American Human Rights Council also chimed in with its own opposition.

“The American Human Rights Council joins members of the community demanding clear answers on how much hazardous waste will be dumped and stored in Detroit neighborhoods and what quantity is coming from other states,” the group says on its website. “(We) are concerned about the serious health hazard conditions this expansion will create, including the impact on Detroit’s water system.”

State officials recently extended the public comment period on the permit application this month and said there is no set time-frame for a decision. Richard Conforti, a DEQ environmental engineer, said he has reviewed the concerns of residents who have submitted comments or made statements at public meetings. He said some concerns are more legitimate than others.

Concerns of additional traffic and risk may have some merit based simply on odds created by increased capacity at the U.S. Ecology facility. The building is located near the Detroit-Hamtramck General Motors plant and a Detroit Water & Sewerage Department facility.

Claims found in some protest literature, such as “residue will be released into Detroit’s water system,” seem less likely.

“Nothing will be released into the water supply — Lake Huron or the Detroit River,” Conforti said. He also noted that the facility is designed to keep on-site spills from getting off-property.

Other concerns, such as dust generated by the operation, are still being studied. But the plant has run for years with relatively few problems that affected the public. Since 1987, the state has logged 116 violations against the company, with only one of those qualifying as a release.

“It’s an industrial area,” Conforti said. “The facility has been there for some time. They are in substantial compliance and they do things well. If they meet the requirement of the law — statutes and rules of state and federal government — then we would have to grant them the permit.”

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