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Decision time nears for controversial hazardous waste expansion plan in Detroit

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Jennifer Fassbender
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State environmental regulators are nearing a long-awaited decision on a permit to expand a hazardous waste facility in Detroit.

U.S. Ecology first applied for a permit to expand storage capacity ten-fold at its Detroit North facility in 2015. But the application stalled in the face of major political and community opposition.

Some residents and activists have major concerns. They question whether the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality permitting process is stringent enough, and whether environmental monitoring will be adequate for the new proposed scale of the facility.

They also note that the U.S. Ecology has numerous violations for discharging high levels of some chemicals into Detroit’s sewer system, though the company notes those violations have been reduced dramatically in the past couple of years.

Reverend D. Alexander Bullock says the concerns are valid.

“You’ve got a small agency [MDEQ] that can’t really do the job, you’ve got a corporation that we’re not sure we can trust to do it, and you’ve got a state government and the city of Detroit that may be dropping the ball,” Bullock said.

Both the Detroit City Council and Hamtramck City Council (that city also adjoins the Detroit North facility) have passed resolutions opposing the expansion, and local politicians including the area's State Rep. Isaac Robinson have also lined up to object.

Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, questions why MDEQ would continue to waive groundwater and soil monitoring requirements at the facility.

But Leonard and others also ask why a facility in this particular community—with its largely low-income, African-American and immigrant populations—would be targeted for expansion.

Leonard says that’s an environmental injustice. “They are seen as the paths of least resistance. They are seen as groups that don’t have the political power to stop these things from being located in their backyard,” he said.

U.S. Ecology spokesman John Truscott says the expansion is mostly about expanding storage, not increased treatment of hazardous waste materials. He points out that the facility has been operating there in some form for 50 years, and is there because it’s near manufacturing facilities that are some of its customers.

As for whether the environmental permitting and monitoring is adequate, “The DEQ is really tough, and they do not let anything slip by,” Truscott said. “Our experience has been across the board that they are very good and very tough regulators.”

The MDEQ planned to hold a final community meeting on the proposed permit in Hamtramck Thursday, with translators provided for the Yemeni and Bangladeshi communities, who critics said had been left out of the process. The agency is expected to finally make a decision on the permit soon after that.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Radio in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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