State approves permit for controversial asphalt plant near Flint. Residents are angry

Kayla Ruble
Special to The Detroit News

Flint — The state's environmental department approved an air permit Monday for a controversial asphalt plant that will be built across the street from public housing developments.

According to Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, the permit granted to Troy-based Ajax Paving company to operate “was appropriately issued after the applicant met all requirements of air regulations.”

The permit approval comes after months of protest and pushback from Flint residents, politicians, activists and community leaders, who have expressed concern that the additional pollution from the asphalt plant will further worsen the air quality in a neighborhood already burdened by emissions from industrial facilities.

No Asphalt Plant in our Neighborhood signs are posted along Carpenter Road in Flint on Thursday.

At the same time, an environmental regulator has sought guidance and support from the federal Environmental Protection Agency to provide tools and strategies for improving public health in at-risk communities, acknowledging the plant will be located in a neighborhood of social and economic distress.

►Read more: Flint residents fight against asphalt plant as state weighs approval

EGLE said its director, Liesl Clark, sent a letter to the EPA Monday noting the experience with the asphalt plant permit highlights the limitations regulation has in addressing the concerns raised by Flint residents.

“It is vital that air permitting rules ensure consistent, clear rules so that they are not subject to arbitrary decisions,” Clark said. “But it is abundantly clear in this situation, and many others across the nation, that the tools we are given to protect particularly distressed communities should be strengthened.”

In September, the EPA weighed in on the matter and echoed many residents' concerns about subjecting the neighborhood to additional pollution. In a letter to EGLE, EPA’s acting region 5 administrator, Cheryl Newton, recommended further study, saying the neighborhood was already exposed to high levels of pollution.

Currently, the industrial area is home to a power station, paving company, and an industrial adhesive, coating and painting facility. It sits right on the edge of Flint's city limits, with the River Park apartments, a second public housing complex and a subdivision of private homes directly across the street and downwind from the operation. Within a 1-mile-radius, there are also multiple mobile home parks, an assisted living facility and a county recreation area.

In a press release announcing the decision, EGLE said it “took every measure it could within existing laws to protect the residents in the plant’s vicinity,” including consulting with legal experts and the Michigan Attorney General's Office.

Monday's permit approval did come with specific conditions set by EGLE, including removing the company’s ability to burn waste oil, limiting the sulfur content, more stringent emissions and organic testing requirements, and plans for controlling dust. According to the agency, following the permit approval, a 90-day period will now commence in which the decision can be appealed in court.

James Friel, Ajax Paving's chief financial officer, declined to comment. 

Earth-moving equipment levels ground for the future Ajax Paving asphalt plant that is located along Energy Drive off of Carpenter Road on the edge of Flint's city limits.

Upon hearing the news of the permit approval, Richard Jones, a resident of Flint’s Third Ward who has been fighting against the plant alongside activists since the summer, said he was frustrated by the decisions and told EGLE to count on them taking action in court.

“Ya’ll act like our voices don’t count,” Jones said. “I've been saying that all they was going to do was hear us out and keep it moving… When I be saying stuff like that I be hoping I be wrong. I want to be wrong. But I keep being right.”

Jones said the entire saga feels like the outcome was inevitable, particularly since the company continued preparing the property for the plant even while the permit was still being debated.

Over the summer, with the permit still pending, construction crews were able to start clearing the wooded field where the plant will be located, which is zoned for commercial use and owned by the company.

Parents throughout River Park apartments also expressed concern about letting their children play outside once the plant is built.

“A lot of us will be devastated because ... there’s a lot of people out here that's in this community that can't get out of it out of the community and so they're stuck out here no matter what,” said Sanika Williams, a 39-year-old mother of four who lives in the River Park complex. “Those are the ones that we should be worried about.”

During a virtual town hall event on Monday hosted by the Stop Ajax coalition groups, Mona Munroe-Younis with the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint called EGLE’s lack of action “astounding,” noting the permit approval comes after unprecedented steps by the EPA to weigh in on the issue with its own public comment.

“We’re all saying with one united face that this plant should not be located here. ... Putting it here is active environmental racism,” Munroe-Munis said. “Maybe they didn’t know this history when they bought the land, but they have millions of dollars and they know now.”

On Monday morning, Flint City Council member Quincy Murphy, who represents the city’s Third Ward, which includes the neighborhood across the street from the proposed asphalt plant, said the fight would not end with the permit’s approval. Murphy also vowed to take the battle to court.

“Whatever I can do to help you guys, I’m here for you guys,” said Murphy, addressing activists and residents before calling out Gov. Gretchen Whitmer.

Across Flint, many have questioned Whitmer’s public campaign promise to fix the state’s roads and raised concerns about whether that interest is influencing the decision to allow the Ajax plant to move forward.

“Governor Whitmer, one of her slogans was to 'Fix the Damn Roads,' but not on the back of allowing an asphalt company to come into a predominantly African American community,” Murphy said.

In August, Flint Mayor Sheldon Neeley came together with the Flint City Council to pass and sign a resolution objecting to the permit application. Because the plant is located just outside of the city limits in Genesee Township, however, the city of Flint has no control over the property.

Long-time Detroit environmental justice activist Theresa Landrum highlighted the disproportionate industrial burden faced by low-income and minority communities, pushing the state of Michigan to do more to evaluate the cumulative impact of pollution in industrial areas, not just in the case of the Flint asphalt plant, but across the state.

“Low-income minority people of color communities, if you look across America, this is where all these companies are located in,” she said. “We are now asking for a cumulative impact assessment for every permit that is considered.”