River Rouge dust up

Why would the city of River Rouge enter into an agreement to expand a waste facility that has a history of environmental violations?

That's the question Maxine Johnson and other Detroit residents want answered, fearing they'll suffer the consequences of the expansion of S&J Disposal & Recycling, on the border of Detroit and River Rouge. S&J grinds up debris from residential demolitions.

Residents have reason to be concerned. According to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, a 1996 inspection of the facility found that it was accepting more than 1,000 cubic yards of material daily when it was limited by law to only 200 cubic yards.

Johnson, a member of the southwest Detroit neighborhood group that is gearing up to fight the company's expansion, expressed dismay that it was recently granted a construction permit by the DEQ, and that River Rouge agreed to go along with the plan.

"How can this be?" complained Johnson, treasurer of the Bassett Street Progressives Block Club.

Detroit residents are angry because they feel they weren't given an opportunity to voice their opposition to the expansion. The project even took Detroit officials by surprise.

In September, the director of Detroit's Department of Environmental Affairs wrote DEQ Waste Management Chief James Sygo complaining that the plant, at the very least, is going to become a greater nuisance because more of its trucks will be hauling their dusty cargo through Detroit streets.

Residents such as Johnson are also concerned about the possibility that the dust will contain cancer-causing asbestos particles. The fire-retardant material can frequently be found in the shingles used on older homes.

The DEQ's Sygo says that agreements with the company will protect residents. As part of the permit, says Sygo, S&J owner Richard Hobig has agreed to keep his property clear of asbestos, which could be easily pulverized and release particles into the air.

Residents are not exactly taking comfort in DEQ's and Hobig's assurances.

Kathy Milberg, executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, says that no plan has been put in place that will guarantee the agreement is adhered to.

Milberg isn't encouraged by the fact that she keeps getting unsatisfactory answers to her questions.

"We asked about random sampling tests, and they couldn't say who would do them or when they would be done," says Milberg.

Questions about asbestos-
removal training also went unanswered, she says.

Hobig could not be reached for comment.

The city of River Rouge is having second thoughts. City attorney Mike Donaldson said he is investigating ways to get out of the commitment to S&J. But he fears doing so may be difficult, and said Hobig has promised to sue if the city does not honor its agreement.

On the other hand, Johnson says her neighborhood group will sue if the project gets a green light.

River Rouge City Council is to vote on the issue after receiving Donaldson's report, which isn't expected until at least early next year.