Raising suits over stink

Feb 9, 2000 at 12:00 am

A pair of class action lawsuits filed in recent weeks signals that some southwest Detroiters are fed up with waiting for government officials to curb polluters.

Dan Pederson hit the breaking point after watching his family suffer through four consecutive stench-filled days last summer.

The stink, which he says smells like some weird, sickening mix of sewage water and hot tar, was overwhelming. After years of tolerating the problem in his southwest Detroit neighborhood, he decided to finally take action.

"We have a 3-year-old daughter," says Pederson. "When the smell gets bad, she starts to gag, and we have to shut all the windows in the house. After four consecutive days, I became irate.

"I’ve lived in this community 16 years," continues Pederson, the author of two books on savings bonds. "I knew there was an extreme problem here, but I didn’t know the exact cause of it."

So he began making phone calls. It didn’t take long to pinpoint the source: Sybill Inc., a waste oil recycling plant at 111 Military.

Pederson first contacted the plant, and, he says, quickly got nowhere with his complaint.

"Basically," he recalls, "they said, ‘Live with it.’"

Next he went to Wayne County Air Quality Control, where he looked through the plant’s voluminous file.

"I was outraged," says Pederson. "There were hundreds and hundreds of complaints from people over the past five years, yet no significant action was taken by Air Quality Control."

Enforcement officials showed concern, even coming to Pederson’s home for a meeting. They promised action, and told him negotiations were under way for a consent order that would force the company to clean up its act.

"They said, "We know it’s a problem, and we are going to aggressively pursue a consent order that has teeth in it."

Pederson was invited to call Wendy Barrett, head of Air Quality Control, whenever he wanted to get an update on progress.

"I called three times, and never received a return call," he says.

He began contacting others in the area who have been active on the issue.

"As a group, we began discussing what our options are for clean air," he explains. "We decided that we had explored all reasonable options available, and that there were no assurances that there would be a satisfactory response."

And so the residents turned to a lawyer, and last month a class action lawsuit was filed in Wayne County Circuit Court against Sybill, which is also known as SRS Environmental, a company with corporate offices in Dearborn. Bill Madias, CEO of SRS Environmental, declined to comment on the lawsuit.

Within weeks, 16 neighborhood residents filed a class action against Peerless Metal Powders & Abrasives, a manufacturing facility located just a block from Sybill. Both businesses are within Detroit’s "empowerment zone" that provides tax breaks to companies meeting certain guidelines. The program is intended to inject economic vitality in areas plagued by high poverty rates.

Peerless was the focus last year of a Metro Times article ("Frank Johnson’s union dues," Oct. 13-19) that chronicled attempts of plant workers to organize a union. In addition to pay and benefit issues, workers raised health and environmental concerns.

Residents complained about clouds of smoke and dust coming out of the plant, often at night. Once-white aluminum siding on houses near the company have taken on a rust-colored patina.

The company has been operating under a consent order imposing a strict set of guidelines since 1993, but residents say problems continue.

According to the lawsuit, it is alleged that area residents "are continuously assaulted by the noxious odors, toxic contaminants and other airborne pollutants" emitted by the facility. As a result, both property values and quality of life have suffered.

Peerless owner Paul Tousley refused comment when contacted by Metro Times to discuss the lawsuit. "I’m just going to say good morning and goodbye," he said before hanging up.

The allegations against Sybill are similar to those raised in the Peerless suit. The difference is that the dust and smoke that are said to come from the metal powders facility primarily affect homes in the immediate area. The odor problems from Sybill have a much broader scope. Pederson, for example, lives three-quarters of a mile from the plant.

It is not just the smell that worries people. There are five public schools in the area around Sybill, which raises additional health concerns.

Although the plant is supposed to deal only with nonhazardous waste, the Environmental Protection Agency alleged in 1998 that the facility was accepting oil contaminated with hazardous waste. As a result of that complaint, the company last November agreed to pay a $148,000 fine, according to the EPA.

The lawsuit alleges that the facility regularly processes materials that contain cancer-causing chemicals such as benzene and tetrachloroethylene.

The suits seek to hold the companies financially liable for damages their activities have allegedly caused, but according to Pederson, one of nine named plaintiffs in the Sybill case, the primary motivation is to live in a community with breathable air, no matter what it takes.

"We want a judge to issue an order that they have to comply with or risk being shut down. There is one goal in all this – clean air. We want to send a strong message that they can’t do business like this in our community."

Wayne County’s Barrett defends her agency’s actions, saying the department is on top of the issue. In the case of Peerless, she points out that there have been few complaints regarding the company, and that it responded quickly after being hit with a notice of violation last summer.

As for Sybill, Barrett readily acknowledges that the problem is longstanding, but points out that the company has taken a number of steps in recent months to upgrade the facility to eliminate the odor problem, and that continued improvement is in the works. A consent order laying down strict operating guidelines is expected to be completed by spring.

For residents and environmental activists, however, the situation has already reached the boiling point. They complain that the county is often slow to respond to complaints – an important issue since enforcement officers must confirm the problem and a source. If it takes even a few hours to investigate, the problem may have subsided, leaving no chance to verify the source.

According to county complaint logs for a one-month period last year – from Sept. 23 to Oct. 23 – the county’s air quality hot line received 12 complaints specifically identifying Sybill as the source of foul odors, some from as far as a mile from the plant. In six cases the county responded within less than two hours; in six other cases complaints were not investigated for a day or more.

For Kathy Milberg, executive director of the group Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision and a lifelong area resident, the fact that both businesses have been allowed to continue operating as they have in a residential neighborhood affects more than property values and the health of residents.

"It is psychologically damaging," she contends. "You begin to accept that you are so insignificant that the people who are paid to protect you can’t bring themselves to do that.

"I defy anyone to show me a place in Livonia or Dearborn or any other more affluent suburban community where they would allow this to go on. They determine their actions based on your income level and property value. It’s outrageous."