Environmental Protection Agency employees at a Grosse Ile facility will not be returning to work on Monday. The Large Lakes Research Station was closed on Wednesday, despite backlash from local, state, and federal politicians. The Grosse Ile workers were supposed to move to an emissions testing facility in Ann Arbor, but many are concerned about the safety of the facility, as they have yet to receive results from air quality testing.
The American Federation of Government Employees, the union representing the workers, requested air quality testing results and were supposed to receive them on Wednesday, August 21, the date of the Grosse Ile station’s closure. Union reps say they have not seen those results at all.
Nicole Cantello is the president of AFGE Local No. 704. She says there has been no transparency between the EPA and the workers as far as the reasons for the move to Ann Arbor, and the results of air quality testing that have been conducted in the facility.
“They actually are moving folks into an emissions testing facility. Part of the issue here is that they have not yet certified that the facility is safe for folks to breathe," she said. "We don't really know why they decided to make that move, it doesn't make any sense to us.”
U.S. Representative Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) represents Michigan’s 12th district. She has been publicly fighting the EPA’s decision to close the Grosse Ile station.
She says she is “disappointed” by the EPA’s handling of the situation, particularly in regards to its communication with employees.
“They have a contract, so I think EPA has got a responsibility to provide what is guaranteed to them by that contract, to know the workspace these employees are being transferred to meets all air quality standards for a safe work environment,” Dingell said.
Cantello says the move to Ann Arbor makes no sense in terms of location.
“The lion’s share of [workers] are what are called first responders to emergency events. They respond to emergency environmental events. These are things like train derailments, hazardous chemicals," she said. "This is the kind of emergency responder who would know what to do when, say, that train derailment happens. They would go to the site of the derailment, and they’d be able to mobilize very quickly. These are very highly skilled and highly trained employees.”
Cantello points out these skills would be more useful in Grosse Ile.
“They were closer to Detroit in Grosse Ile, where there are more of these events than there are in the Ann Arbor area," she said. "That’s why we thought they were better stationed closer to more densely populated and more industrialized areas. The implications of moving them have not been presented to us in any meaningful fashion.”
Dingell agreed, saying the longer drive from Ann Arbor could be problematic in case of an environmental emergency in Detroit.
“I think [the Grosse Ile station] is strategically located around the Great Lakes and the Detroit River. The EPA lab Downriver, there’s a lot of manufacturing, there’s been a lot of chemical spills," Dingell said. "It’s an area we want to protect and clean up which is why being geographically closer makes a difference.”
Dingell says she intends to keep fighting to keep the plant in Grosse Ile.
“I’m not happy about this. I’m not ever going to stop trying to keep this facility strategically located there. The EPA provides very critical resources in terms of protecting our environment, and when you look at what’s happened with cleanup at a lot of sites in southeast Michigan, protecting our Great Lakes, protecting our waters and creeks, the EPA plays a critical role. They need to be where the work is.” She adds, “the Ann Arbor lab is a great lab. They do very critical work for the auto industry, but this lab has had a different function and priority. Being located by the water you are protecting matters and makes a difference.”
Responding to request for comment, an EPA spokesperson provided this statement:
This August, EPA’s Michigan-based emergency response staff will be moving from Grosse Ile to new, state-of-the-art office space in Ann Arbor. The move started yesterday and the 20 EPA employees are expected to start working from their new location on Monday. As part of the move, EPA is completing a thorough indoor air quality assessment of the new space and will share the results with AFGE and employees. The functions currently being performed in Grosse Ile will continue after relocation of the field office. EPA is committed to supporting all the communities covered by this field office and does not anticipate any impact on the on-scene coordinators’ mobilization capability or response times.
Following the November 2015 decision by EPA’s Office of Research and Development (ORD) to vacate the property, the Large Lakes Research facility in Michigan was identified as a property under the Federal Assets Sale and Transfer Act (FASTA), bipartisan legislation that was signed into law in December 2016. FASTA, which passed by voice vote in the House and by unanimous consent in the Senate, requires the Office of Management and Budget and GSA to identify opportunities for the Federal Government to reduce its inventory of civilian properties.
Since the 1970s, EPA has operated out of what was the Grosse Ile Naval Air Station. Although the Grosse Ile facility once housed EPA’s Large Lakes Research Station and staff from NOAA and FWS, the building is now largely vacant and in need of costly renovations. Moving to Ann Arbor – to space shared with EPA’s National Vehicle and Fuel Emissions Laboratory – will save the agency more than $500,000 per year.