Communities of color are dumping grounds for toxic waste in Michigan

Part two of a series on environmental racism in Michigan

Sep 16, 2020 at 1:00 am
click to enlarge U.S. Ecology facility on Detroit’s east side received permission to expand its storage of toxic waste ninefold. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
U.S. Ecology facility on Detroit’s east side received permission to expand its storage of toxic waste ninefold.

The dust and stench of rotten eggs and chemicals are so nauseating that Pamela McWilliams often dons a mask and shuts the windows of her home on Detroit's east side.

The asthmatic 57-year-old has trouble sleeping at night because of heavy truck traffic coming to and from nearby industrial plants. She and other neighbors say they're sometimes aroused awake by explosions and vibrations that have shaken the shingles off McWilliams' roof and cracked her windows. The value of her home has plummeted, and her brother moved away because "he couldn't take it anymore," she tells Metro Times.

Her predominantly Black, lower-income neighborhood at the border of Hamtramck is one of the most polluted in the state, with elevated levels of particulate matter, ozone and other harmful emissions known to cause serious health problems, including asthma, impaired lung function, cardiovascular disease, and birth defects.

"I like fresh air. I don't want to be a prisoner in my house. I should be able to sit on my front porch, but it's stressful," McWilliams tells Metro Times. "It's sad and crazy. It's a nightmare."

She and thousands of others live near a slim industrial zone of pollution-spewing factories that make their neighborhoods one of the most polluted in the state. Now they're bracing for more dust, pollution, and noise after losing a years-long battle to prevent the expansion of U.S. Ecology at 6520 Georgia St., a hazardous-waste processing plant with a troubling record of environmental violations. In January, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) approved U.S. Ecology's permit to increase its storage of toxic waste ninefold. The plant has permission to treat 144,000 gallons of toxic and industrial chemicals per day, including arsenic, cyanide, mercury, PCBs, and PFAS, that are dumped into the city's sewer system. Over the past 10 years, U.S. Ecology has been cited more than 150 times for releasing excessive amounts of toxic chemicals into the sewer system, according to Great Lake Water Authority records.

In Michigan, communities of color serve as virtual dumping grounds for toxic waste. Seven of the eight hazardous-waste facilities that are permitted to accept offsite waste in Michigan are in disproportionately Black, lower-income communities in metro Detroit. Of the residents living within a three-mile radius of the plants, 65% are people of color. By comparison, people of color make up 25% of the state's population.

The same disparities existed in 2007, when the United Church of Christ found that Michigan led the country with the most disproportionate number of people of color living near hazardous waste facilities. The report, the authors wrote, "signals clear evidence of racism where toxic waste sites are located and the way government responds to toxic contamination emergencies in people of color communities."

"For decades, companies such as U.S. Ecology have sought out communities of color for their hazardous waste facilities because they were seen as the path of least resistance for places to store, treat, and dispose of our society's poisons," Michelle Martinez, director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, said in a statement. "We need EGLE to step up and protect us from environmental racism, or this legacy will continue for another several decades."

The state's eight hazardous-waste facilities have been cited hundreds of times for violations ranging from contaminating water sources with toxic spills to fires and explosions caused by mishandling chemicals.

EGLE acknowledges the racial disparities and says it's committed to addressing them.

"We recognize these concentrations of polluting facilities in underserved neighborhoods of color are environmental justice issues," EGLE spokesman Nick Assendelft tells Metro Times. "We are working to address those issues within the confines of the law and our authority."

In early 2019, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate to explore ways to combat environmental racism. Whitmer followed up in January with the creation of the state's first Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

click to enlarge U.S. Ecology building at 6520 Georgia St., which borders densely populated neighbors. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
U.S. Ecology building at 6520 Georgia St., which borders densely populated neighbors.

Battleground for racial justice

U.S. Ecology's expansion has become the battleground in the fight against environmental racism in Michigan. In August, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center filed a 55-page complaint with EGLE, arguing that it violated the civil rights of residents living near the facility just north of I-94. A coalition of environmental groups argues the state has a legal responsibility under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the EPA's Title VI regulations to ensure communities of color aren't disproportionately subjected to environmental hazards.

"To put it simply, Michigan's low-income communities of color are disproportionately bearing the burden of living near large commercial hazardous waste facilities," Nick Leonard, executive director of the law center, wrote in the complaint, on behalf of residents, the Sierra Club, and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. "These facilities serve as the dumping ground for hazardous waste that comes from all over the country."

EGLE doesn't disagree.

"Decades of history have brought us to where we are today regarding locations of facilities," 

Assendelft says. "We recognize undoing those decades of injustice will take sustained, long-term commitment to changing laws, practices, and mindsets."

But EGLE has long argued it doesn't have the legal authority to deny a permit to companies as long as they're in compliance with state and federal environmental laws.

"The current siting of these facilities is not part of EGLE's purview," Assendelft
 says. "As a regulatory agency, we are bound by the laws and regulations that we enforce, which are focused on how these facilities affect the environment and people."

Leonard disagrees, saying federal law clearly requires states to prevent polluters from disproportionately impacting people of color.

"EGLE has a legal obligation ... to ensure that its licensing decisions do not have a discriminatory effect," Leonard says. "Instead of closely examining the proposed license to ensure that it would not have an unjustified adverse disparate impact on the surrounding community, EGLE continued its disappointing legacy of shirking its Title VI obligations to communities of color, which perpetuates the environmental injustice of commercial hazardous-waste facilities in Michigan being disportionately located in communities of color."

Within a 1.5-mile radius of U.S. Ecology are densely populated neighborhoods, four playgrounds, five parks, seven nursing homes, 11 churches, three mosques, four preschool Head Start programs, three elementary and middle schools, and a high school. Of the more than 10,000 people who live near the plant, about 80% are people of color, and 70% are considered low-income. The residents are predominantly Black, with a sizable population of Yemeni-Americans and Bengali-Americans.

About 1,600 feet from U.S. Ecology is the Masjid Mu'ath Bin Jabal, a mosque and a charter school.

"The mosque is the focal point for the surrounding neighborhood, which is almost entirely made up of Yemeni-Americans, many of whom are limited in their English proficiency," the complaint states.

Sam Alarsi, who has lived near U.S. Ecology since 1988 and is chairman of the Yemeni-American Political Action Committee, says he and his neighbors are uneasy because "a lot of people are getting sick, and we don't know where it's coming from."

"They ignored the community of color and made us feel like we don't exist," Alarsi tells Metro Times. "It makes me feel scared, and it makes me feel like my house means nothing to them. We deserve to have a fair life and clean air."

During the public comment period, non-English speakers were not alerted in Arabic to the proposed expansion until late in the process. When the state finally circulated information in Arabic, the translation "didn't make sense," he says.

U.S. Ecology defends its location and tells Metro Times that it has been receptive to community concerns and notes the facility recently stopped processing radioactive fracking sludge, known as technologically enhanced, naturally occurring radioactive material (TENORM), when residents spoke out against it.

"U.S. Ecology has facilities across North America with only a handful located near communities of color," says the company's spokesman David Crumrine. "A key priority for us is maintaining open and transparent relationships with regulators and the communities we serve."

U.S. Ecology isn't the only contributor to pollution in the area. Other industrial facilities, including Strong Steel, Universal Logistics, and Flex-N-Gate, help create one of the most hazardous environments in the state. Other industrial buildings are beginning to crop up.

The three-mile residential area surrounding U.S. Ecology scores above the state's 90th percentile for risk of respiratory hazards and cancer risk from air toxins. Residents suffer from disproportionately high rates of asthma, brain damage, cancer, respiratory problems, miscarriages, birth defects, and cognitive impairments.

click to enlarge Stuffed animals hanging on a utility pole in a neighborhood near U.S. Ecology. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Stuffed animals hanging on a utility pole in a neighborhood near U.S. Ecology.

Dangers of hazardous waste

Hazardous waste is a potentially dangerous byproduct of manufacturing, farming, construction, laboratories, water treatment systems, and other industries. It contains chemicals, heavy metals, radiation, and other materials that may pose a serious risk to people, animals, and the environment. If mishandled, hazardous waste can contaminate the air, water, and soil.

Exposure to hazardous waste can cause severe and irreparable health problems, including cancer, genetic mutations, kidney failure, birth defects, and cognitive impairment, according to the EPA.

Michigan is the second-largest importer of hazardous waste in the United States. In 2017, Michigan imported more than 220,000 tons of hazardous waste, the equivalent weight of eight Statues of Liberty, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. Michigan imported hazardous waste from 44 states and Washington, D.C. Some of the waste came from as far away as the Northern Mariana Islands in the Pacific Ocean, a 7,000-mile trip.

In all, 70% of the waste in Michigan's facilities came from outside the state in 2017. Of that, 94% of it ended up in Wayne County, which has the largest population of people of color in Michigan. The county represents 17.5% of the state's population.

Only 5% of the waste that originated in Michigan was produced inside the counties in which the facilities are located.

In addition to U.S. Ecology, these facilities have permission to accept offsite waste: Wayne Disposal Inc. (Belleville), Michigan Disposal Waste Treatment Plant (Belleville), PSC Environmental Services (Detroit), Gage Products Co. (Ferndale), Drug And Laboratory Disposal, Inc. (Plainwell), and Republic Industrial And Energy Solutions (Romulus).

Many states have adopted laws or policies that would prevent hazardous-waste facilities from being concentrated in Black communities or near densely populated neighborhoods. In Arkansas, hazardous-waste facilities are prohibited from operating within a half mile of any occupied building or home. Florida bars facilities from operating within 1,000 yards of a home and 1,500 yards of any hospital, prison, school, nursing home, day-care facility, stadium, or place of worship.

In New York, hazardous-waste facilities cannot be concentrated in one area and must be equitably distributed. Michigan has a similar law that requires EGLE to ensure "reasonable geographic distribution" of hazardous-waste facilities, but environmental groups say Michigan isn't enforcing it.

click to enlarge Thousands of homes, like these, are within a mile of U.S. Ecology. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Thousands of homes, like these, are within a mile of U.S. Ecology.

'Geography is destiny'

It's no coincidence that communities of color are bearing the brunt of dangerous pollution: In the first half of the 20th century, local and federal authorities reinforced racial segregation by creating laws and policies that confined Black people to small, overcrowded, and dilapidated neighborhoods with dire housing conditions, substandard schools, and inadequate city services. In 1947, when African Americans were fleeing the Jim Crow South in droves, less than 9% of the 545,000 housing units in the Detroit area were available to Black people, according to Tom Sugrue's book The Origins of the Urban Crisis.

In the name of "urban renewal" in postwar Detroit, many of the Black enclaves were bulldozed and replaced with industrial corridors, where pollution-spewing factories cropped up and to this day pose serious health risks to nearby residents.

"To a great extent in postwar America, geography is destiny," Sugrue wrote.

Black Detroiters suffer from disproportionately high rates of asthma, cancer, brain damage, heart disease, respiratory problems, miscarriages, birth defects, and cognitive impairments — all of which are tied to air pollution. Pollution kills an estimated 650 Detroiters a year, more than twice the number of residents killed by guns annually, according to a study by the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

"The impacts of poor air quality disproportionately fall on poor and minority populations," the researchers wrote in "Working Together to Improve Detroit's Air."

Justin Onwenu, a community organizer for the Sierra Club, says Michigan is at "the epicenter of the fight for environmental justice."

"The Flint Water Crisis, water shutoffs, and poor air quality are discussed, but many people don't know that the overwhelming majority of hazardous-waste facilities — facilities that process the most toxic chemicals known to man — are located in communities of color and process toxic chemicals from all over the world," Onwenu tells Metro Times. "We know this has an impact on everything from health and home values to the ability of schoolchildren to learn in a healthy environment. This is a clear case of environmental injustice that must be addressed with urgency."

EGLE defended the expansion of U.S. Ecology, in part, by saying the "surrounding area has gone from residential to industrial," a claim that residents and environmentalists say dismisses the densely populated neighborhoods.

"This callous statement ignores the history of housing discrimination and slum clearance for industrial activity that turned what was once one of Detroit's few Black enclaves into a community that is disportionately composed of low-income people of color," Leonard wrote in the civil rights complaint.

By comparison, Leonard notes how few people live near the only commercial hazardous-waste facility outside of metro Detroit, Drug and Laboratory Disposal, Inc., in rural Allegan County. More people live within a three-mile radius of U.S. Ecology than those who live within an 11-mile radius of Drug and Laboratory Disposal, which takes in far less waste.

Mark Covington, a lifelong Detroit resident who helped build a coalition to fight U.S. Ecology's expansion, says he's concerned that residents are being squeezed out by industrial buildings.

"They have all this space throughout the state, but they continue to build up in neighborhoods with a lot of people of color," Covington says. "It's like they don't care about us."

A troubling record

U.S. Ecology has dumped an excessive amount of nearly two dozen types of hazardous chemicals or metals into the sewer system, environmental records show. Wastewater sampling found alarmingly high levels of arsenic, mercury, and titanium in the sewer system near U.S. Ecology.

Over the past few years, residents have reported spotting a mysterious yellow foam coming out of storm sewers near the plant.

Environmental groups were alarmed when EGLE allowed U.S. Ecology to discontinue soil and groundwater testing, saying toxic waste can pose a serious health risk for many years.

U.S. Ecology insists it has sufficient safeguards in place to protect nearby residents.

"Since U.S. Ecology acquired the Detroit North location in 2012, we have focused on ensuring safety for the community as we work to provide compliant environmental solutions for the Michigan area," Crumrine says. "Under our management, the facility has had a very good safety and compliance record. We maintain a culture of continuous improvement to ensure this track record is maintained and strengthened over time. Safety is our top priority."

Michigan officials plan to meet soon with a coalition of environmental groups and residents to address the civil rights complaint. In the meantime, officials say they are committed to working toward environmental justice.

"The Office of Environmental Justice is working externally and within state government to collaboratively address challenges that affect communities of color and low income communities," Assendelft says. "We know that this is not easy to accomplish and will not happen overnight; however, we remain committed to working toward achieving environmental justice."

Stay on top of Detroit news and views. Sign up for our weekly issue newsletter delivered each Wednesday.