Plant expansion plan stokes neighbors’ pollution fears
The east-side resident has concerns about the long-term effects.
Detroit — There are days when Pamela McWilliams’ whole east side block smells like rotten eggs.
The odor, she said, seems even stronger in the summer heat.
“I don’t know what we’re breathing over here half the time,” McWilliams said. “I’m stressed out.”
McWilliams and her neighbors on Concord Street and surrounding areas have lived with this nuisance for years, and they’ve forfeited many luxuries other homeowners enjoy.
They rarely go out for evening walks to get fresh air and avoid planting gardens because of the noticeable pollutants in the air, they say.
The neighborhood is in a battle with U.S. Ecology — the plant on nearby Georgia Street they say is emitting pollutants — to stop the waste facility from a receiving a permit to substantially expand.
The plant stores solid and liquid waste from automotive, steel, plating, and retail industry customers in the region, as well as hazardous household waste from area residents. It also offers treatment, disposal and recycling of waste.
Detroit and Hamtramck city councils and the Wayne County Commission have backed the residents urging the Michigan Department of Environmental Equality to deny the expansion of U.S. Ecology’s Georgia Street facility that sits on the Detroit-Hamtramck border.
Wayne County Commissioner Martha Scott sees it as a form of environmental injustice, marginalizing a poor, black community in Detroit. The neighborhood is part of the I-94 industrial corridor.
“We just allow poor areas to go unnoticed,” Scott said at a commission meeting earlier this year. “You don’t see any of these businesses in upscale communities.”
U.S. Ecology’s application for expansion is pending with the DEQ. The state expects to make a decision later this month, DEQ spokeswoman Melody Kindraka said.
The permit would allow U.S. Ecology to increase its storage capacity from 64,000 gallons to nearly 666,000 gallons.
The company requested the expansion in 2012 after purchasing the facility from Dynecol, according to the state.
Dynecol had requested a permit renewal in 2007, but U.S. Ecology modified that application when it asked for the expansion.
When reviewing U.S. Ecology’s application permit, the DEQ will consider whether the facility impacts public health and the environment, and if it meets requirements for construction, design and operation.
U.S. Ecology argues the company is a “good neighbor” to Detroit and there is room for industrial facilities and residents to coexist.
But records show U.S. Ecology has been cited on multiple occasions for violating state and federal codes, including those that control air quality.
In August 2015, a DEQ inspection found that more than two bay doors were open while processing at the Georgia Street plant. Additionally, baghouses — which are air pollution control devices — were not maintained and operating properly.
Those issues have since been resolved, Kindraka said.
Earlier this year, a resident complained of odors emitting from the plant and the DEQ investigated the issue. The department discovered that the “facility was doing a particular type of processing that caused an odor,” Kindraka said.
“It was an isolated incident, and we have not received any recent complaints,” she said.
Alex Hurley, a spokesman for U.S. Ecology, said a mixture of chemicals caused an “ammonia smell” that was released when a garage door opened.
Kindraka said U.S. Ecology is regularly monitored under federal, state and local programs. The plant has had three state inspections in the last two months.
Other violations have been administrative. For example, the plant was once cited for failure to post the hours for receiving solid waste, according to the state.
Hurley said in a prepared statement that the Georgia Street facility is located within a few miles of its key customers “enabling provision of more efficient and cost effective service.” The company doesn’t believe it’s releasing harmful odors.
“We regularly monitor the operation and environment to ensure safe operation and no negative impact to the community,” Hurley said. “Our facility is located in an industrial corridor and odors can come from many sources.”
But the residents don’t buy it.
They have spent the last two years speaking out at community meetings, begging the DEQ to reject U.S. Ecology’s permit request.
An estimated 10,000 people live within one mile of the Georgia Street plant.
“We are sick of it,” said Gertrude Sinclair, an 83-year-old resident who owns a home on Concord. “We don’t count for anything; our opinion doesn’t matter.”
Councilman Scott Benson said that isn’t the case and that residents’ voices are being heard.
Benson said he helped organize meetings with the DEQ and residents. The public outcry to the DEQ has delayed the approval of U.S. Ecology’s permit, he said.
Kindraka acknowledged in an email the state would consider the public comment when evaluating the company’s application.
U.S. Ecology, Hurley said, has attended two community meetings with residents during the permit renewal process and led three community tours at its George Street site.
“We also plan to meet with residents regularly going forward,” Hurley said.
Benson said it’s not ideal to have industrial facilities near residential areas.
“We wanted to let the DEQ know that this was a mistake,” Benson said. “The location and authorization of that plant pre-dates me… But, unfortunately, in certain situations, we have to play the hand that is dealt.”
Lawrence Burks, who has lived on Sherwood since 1970, said he smells a foul odor outside his house often.
“It’s the same thing they did to Flint,” said Burks, 52. “All these politicians ... they don’t care. You’re not going to go to Midtown or downtown with that kind of air quality.”
Noise and blight
And odor isn’t the only problem here.
Some residents say their peace is often disrupted by loud noises from a nearby scrapyard.
The noise, residents say, is coming from the Ferrous Processing & Trading scrapyard on Strong Street. The company processes, sells and recycles scrap metals of all kinds.
“Boom!” McWilliams said. “It will shake you out your bed, out your sleep.”
Large piles of debris and smashed vehicles stacked up behind a fence can be seen from Strong Street.
Ferrous didn’t respond to questions from The News.
Burks said Ferrous needs to build a wall around its facility that protects nearby homes from the noise.
The neighborhood also is crumbling.
Every other house on Concord Street is abandoned, and grass and weeds sprout out of cracks in sidewalks.
Some of the homes are not even boarded up, so a passerby can see the darkness and debris through missing windows. Between the abandoned and occupied homes are several empty lots with overgrown grass.
Residents here believe their environment is causing sickness, though Wayne County officials say there is no research to support that connection.
McWilliams said she has asthma and a sleeping disorder; her daughter was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 17, and her 34-year-old son has a tumor in his chest.
Sinclair said she has congestive heart disease.
“It’s unfair because most of the people over here are elderly and disabled,” McWilliams said. “We’re over here, we’re paying taxes and they’re taking us all through this.”
Dr. Mouhanad Hammami, Wayne County Director of Health, Veterans & Community Wellness, said there are studies that suggest industrial pollutants cause asthma and heart disease.
However, there is no evidence that says U.S. Ecology is to blame for the illnesses on Concord Street. Still, Hammami said his office opposes the expansion.
Residents in poor, deteriorating neighborhoods are already more susceptible to sickness, he said. That’s because they are less likely to have access to fresh fruits and vegetables or have a suitable environment for outdoor exercise, Hammami said.
Additionally, Hammami said he is not confident that air quality issues at the plant in the last two years haven’t had an impact on residents’ health.
“You’re adding insult to an already injured community,” Hammami said of the expansion request. “That community cannot go anywhere.”
While U.S. Ecology insists that it wants to be a community partner, some residents say they would rather the company help them relocate.
“If they want to expand, buy us out,” McWilliams said.
Others say the community is their longtime home, and they won’t allow a waste plant to force them out.
“I can’t buy another house for what I paid for this,” said Mosetta Jackson, an 82-year-old resident on Concord. “But this neighborhood is not like it used to be.”