Waste knot

Feb 20, 2002 at 12:00 am

An acrid breeze rustles scattered trash and trees along Greendale Street on Detroit’s north side. It’s a sunny day, July 25, and Willie Bell Gouch relaxes while watching her grandsons play.

And then it comes. Without warning, a putrid stench rushes into Gouch’s home. As the waste-disposal plant down the street dumps thousands of gallons of industrial wastewater trucked from Canada directly into the sewer system, black oily muck and metal-laced water flood Gouch’s basement and gurgle into sinks, bathtubs and toilets throughout the neighborhood.

Mothers gather up their kids and run outdoors. The Head Start program at a nearby school sends children home. Someone calls the police. Fire marshals arrive and tell residents to stay outside.

Gouch, 74, is angry. Her eyes burn, she’s having trouble breathing and her stomach is knotted with nausea. She suffers from migraine headaches on days like this, a weekly event for the last several years — though worse on this day than any in her memory.

Her grandson, 8-year-old Emmitt Michael, goes to his mother’s house across the street where the smell is less intense. He hangs over the toilet, vomiting from an odor he describes as “rotten egg shells and bowel movement mixed together.”

“We can’t live like this,” says Gouch, who, along with her neighbors, points to Canflow Environmental Services at 615 E. Greendale, near Seven Mile and John R, as the root of her problems.

Question of import

Canflow — a Canadian firm with a checkered environmental record — collects wastewater from auto plants, car washes, warehousing companies, tool-and-die factories and high-pressure wash operations throughout Ontario.

Each day, the company hauls as much as 30,000 gallons of the industrial soup as far as 150 miles over the border at Windsor or Port Huron en route to the Greendale plant, border manifests show.

Once at Greendale, the trucks pump the waste into the Detroit sewer system.

Canflow has a permit for the discharges, granted by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in conjunction with the state Department of Environmental Quality. As part of Detroit’s extensive industrial discharge program, the water Canflow dumps is supposed to be nonhazardous. But since 1996, the city and state have cited Canflow repeatedly for exceeding allowed levels of pollutants and for failing to provide documentation that its waste is not hazardous.

More than a decade ago, the company was convicted of bringing hazardous waste into Michigan without a license and selling it as boiler fuel to manufacturers.

One of Canflow’s owners, Morris Bucke, did not respond to calls seeking more information on the company’s operations and why its waste is hauled to Detroit.

Canflow’s Detroit plant has been shut down since the July 25 odor incident that forced Gouch and her neighbors from their homes.

But residents on Greendale have been irate about Canflow for years. Gouch and others blame the company for what they say are rampant illnesses and plumbing problems.

The outcry has caught the attention of state Rep. Hanson Clarke, D-Detroit, among others. Clarke wants the plant closed. Toward that end, he’s enlisted the help of the Sierra Club and Detroiters Working For Environmental Justice.

The state legislator, residents and the environmentalists are demanding that City Council and DWSD deny Canflow its permit, which expires March 1. City officials are reviewing the matter and the complaints, but expect to renew the permit in early March.

A protest rally is planned for Saturday, and Canflow foes are seeking a hearing in front of City Council to plead their case.

“This is horrific. That’s why I got involved,” says Clarke. “People have gotten sick, and I believe it’s because of this.”

Dump in Detroit

Canflow is one of 400 companies permitted to send nonhazardous industrial wastewater to the city’s sewage treatment plant.

Twenty-four of the companies are currently in violation of their discharge permits, though Canflow is not on that list. The city cited 13 of the companies for shoddy record keeping or environmental violations. The companies must comply or risk fines and criminal charges.

Jim Paisley, manager of Canflow’s Greendale plant, says his company brings waste to Detroit because it is the nearest location with capacity to handle the effluent. But Canadian officials say the waste is not dumped there because it is too polluted for the treatment plant in Petrolia, Ontario, Canflow’s hometown.

According to its permit, Canflow is supposed to remove any oils, solids or toxic levels of metals from the water before dumping it into the sewer. While there is no evidence that any of the waste and sewage water that invaded homes last year contained any unpermitted materials, apparently, nobody tested any of the ooze that backed up into basements.

Twenty-four times a year, the city tests samples from Canflow trucks as the fluid is pumped into the sewer, says DWSD spokesman George Ellenwood.

DWSD would not let Metro Times review Canflow’s file, so its complete record is unknown. But some city documents obtained by Metro Times indicate Canflow has been cited at least 15 times since December 1996 for exceeding allowable limits of pollutants, including mercury, silver, nickel and phosphates.

In each case, the citations call on Canflow to identify and remedy the problem, and to prove it is in compliance. The documents illustrate a heavy reliance on the company to test its own discharges.

State officials randomly check trucks coming through customs. In 2000, 17,105 tons of hazardous waste came into Michigan from Canada, while 60,112 tons left Michigan for disposal in Canada, according to DEQ. Statistics on nonhazardous waste were not available.

For the most part, the state relies on Canflow to honestly declare what it is brining into the United States, says Jeanette Noechel, an environmental quality analyst with MDEQ. Noechel says state records dating to 1997 show the company has failed to meet federal and state regulations that require it to document its waste and show it is not hazardous.

The company’s permit does not allow it to dump solids or oils into the sewer. However, Greendale residents, in separate interviews, say that the waste that enters their homes is oily.

“It’s an oil and dirt mix,” says Shirley Groves, who lives two doors from Canflow. “We’re not stupid. We know the difference between muddy water and oil-based.”

“The stuff comes up black,” says Gouch. “I don’t know what kind of stuff it is. It’s got an oil smell, looks oily, and it smells terrible.”

The state does not take its own tests, but relies on DWSD to monitor the content of the discharge. The state oversees the documentation of the waste with periodic checks, Noechel says.

“Does DEQ have any sample results of our own? No, we do not,” Noechel says. “We have seen records of analyses of waste shipments that have come over from Canada that say they are not hazardous. We don’t have any documentation that there was any hazardous waste. We do have some documentation that it was not hazardous.”

The state issued a $23,000 fine against Canflow in August and ordered the company to document the contents of its waste in the future. The order is still in effect.

DWSD officials say the company’s operations are not out of the ordinary. The city’s permit program allows companies to dump nonhazardous industrial water into the sewers. Though the water contains minute levels of metals such as lead, mercury, benzene, barium, cadmium and chromium, the companies are required to treat the liquid to ensure pollutants do not exceed limits set by the EPA.

After the fluid is pumped into the sewer, it gets treated again at the treatment plant along with sewage and storm water before getting released into the Detroit River, near its confluence with the Rouge River.

For its part, Detroit’s treatment plant violated federal pollution limits for discharge between 1997 and 1999. In 2000, a federal judge ordered the city to add additional pollution control equipment to the plant to protect the river from pollutants, and the city is still working to comply with the order.

Because the city’s treatment plant is the largest in the United States and one of the largest in the world, it has the capacity for large commercial and industrial discharges. The plant has the capacity to handle 1.5 billion gallons of wastewater a day; it averages about half that. DWSD does not know the total amount of industrial wastewater flowing into the plant, and does not know how much of this material is shipped into the area to be dumped, says Ellenwood. Only one of the companies currently in violation of discharge permits is located inside the city of Detroit.

Surprisingly, perhaps, the city does not profit from the industrial dumping.

Canflow and the other companies simply share the $12 million a year it costs to manage and enforce standards of the industrial discharge program. City officials were unable to say what Canflow pays for its permit in time for this article.

Dubious as the city’s industrial waste program seems, neighbors of the Canflow facility might not be bothered by the dumping if the sewer system could accommodate it. Canflow’s discharges enter the same lines that run past homes along Greendale before heading toward Woodward and the treatment plant on Jefferson, in southwest Detroit.

Canflow’s plant manager, Jim Paisley, admits that on major dumping days, the sewer along Greendale can’t handle the volume. Plumbing around Greendale backs up even when Canflow is idle. When the discharges take place, the flooding is worse.

Ellenwood says the city has placed cameras in the sewer in an attempt to gather data on what exactly is happening in the neighborhood.

“The smell will wake you from your sleep,” says Nellie Groves, a mother of four who lives on Greendale Street.

Says Gouch, “There’s no way you can stay in this neighborhood. I wish I could move, but I’m not able. It takes a lot of money to move. I’d leave in a minute if I could.”

Residents claim the discharges have led to increased illnesses, cancers and miscarriages since 1995.

“That’s why we call it a waiting place for the dead,” says Vicki Burton, a community organizer. She’s worked for years to get a study of illness rates, but neither city nor state health departments have conducted one.

“The government and the city officials, they are not working in the best interests of our children,” says Burton. “They say that children are our future. Is that a joke? How can the children learn when they are surrounded by this? It makes me sick, it makes me so mad. We need help over here.”

Rhonda Anderson, a Detroit organizer with the Sierra Club, is also disgusted.

“Why haven’t more people been concerned? Because we’re black, we’re poor, and people don’t give a damn,” says Anderson.

Months after the July incident, Gouch sits at her dining room table and urges her grandsons to quit roughhousing. She points to an $800 plumbing bill dated January 2001 that was supposed to prevent pungent odors from blasting through her home when Canflow discharges. She paid the bill. It didn’t help.

“It’s not fair to the taxpayers,” says Gouch. “Everybody wants to live. And I know this stuff is hurting our health and our children’s health. The city says they have the right to let this go on, but they don’t have the right to hurt your health.”

Greendale’s neighbor

Despite the recent problems with the company’s discharges and the suspension of operations, city officials say Canflow has operated a legitimate business since reopening in 1995.

But Clarke scoffs at what he sees as lax oversight.

“This city has allowed them to do this for so long without monitoring what’s going on. The people there don’t have money, they don’t have political connections. And they deserve better,” says the legislator.

Ellenwood says the department will make a decision on the permit in early March. DEQ officials gave the green light for the permit to be reissued, but DWSD engineers are reviewing the matter and may have a list of concerns for Canflow to address, Ellenwood says.

“We believe the sewer system is adequate” to handle the discharges, he says of the 81-year-old lines.

Further, he says, Canflow’s 15 pollution exceedences were “isolated incidents.” Though Ellenwood would not provide documents to prove it, he says that city testing shows the company to be in compliance with environmental regulations.

“We’re going over everything very carefully,” Ellenwood says. “We want to be complete and share as much information as possible. We want to show [residents] we’re making a serious effort to address their concerns.

“Clearly, we’re in a situation where the community has objections, and I don’t think they are necessarily unreasonable.

“We’re also mindful that if the firm is in compliance with all the requirements, we can’t put someone out of business because of community objections.”

Burton finds this argument ludicrous.

“If you kill someone, you go to jail,” she says. “If you commit a crime, there are charges against you. But the city is just letting this company bring this stuff here from Canada, and they aren’t charging them anything, and it’s making us sick and affecting our lives, and nobody’s doing a thing. It’s wrong, and it’s got to stop.”

City Councilman Ken Cockrel says the city’s permit program raises red flags. After he was contacted by community activists, Cockrel had a staffer research the issue. He wants a full report on what is going on in the Greendale neighborhood and with the Canflow discharges.

“I think it raises serious public policy questions about safety and quality of life for the residents,” Cockrel says. He questions the city’s handling of waste permits such as Canflow’s.

“If we’re not getting paid to do it, I think it’s even worse. But to me, that’s not the point. To me, I think the question is whether we need to be doing this at all.”

Bad place for business?

Jim Paisley rolls his pickup truck up the driveway alongside his office, a small building surrounded by barbed-wire fence bearing “No Trespassing” signs. Three corroded smokestacks stand guard.

Paisley has been waiting for city officials to show up for a meeting about Canflow’s discharge permit, which has been suspended since the July incident. The city officials never showed up, he says.

He hesitates before greeting two journalists but quickly shows an affable manner and even provides a tour of the plant.

The small facility, which appears to date from the 1970s, has four or five rooms floored with muddy tile. It contains three shower stalls. A few paintings dot the walls.

In a room filled with trash cans, boxes, powders and empty pop bottles that opens to a concrete courtyard, Paisley demonstrates a dingy blue device about the size of a pop machine that separates metals and solids from liquids at the plant using a process called flocculation.

Paisley says he’s waiting for the city to allow Canflow to begin dumping again. In the meantime, the company is paying to dispose its waste at Usher Oil in Detroit. He explains that Canflow is paid to pick up most of its waste from auto plants around Canada, including those owned by Ford and DaimlerChrysler. Most are American companies that happen to be in Canada, he says.

“They tell us what’s in it,” Paisley says of the waste. If hazardous, Canflow takes it to Canadian landfills that can process it. The rest Canflow treats in Petrolia and then trucks to dump in Detroit. Hardly any of the waste brought here needs additional treatment, Paisley says.

When treatment is needed at the Greendale plant, the leftover waste is thrown into the trash or sent to a local landfill, he says.

Paisley goes into his office and riffles some papers. He knows Gouch. They don’t get along. She claims he laughed at her after the July incident. He says the neighbors in Greendale blame Canflow for “every health problem known to man.”

“It’s the waste business, and the waste business is always unpopular,” Paisley says.

He says the problem in July was the fault of a dysfunctional sewer system, not Canflow’s discharge.

“The city cleaned the sewer,” says Paisley. “It took them a week because it was filled with stuff that looked like coal.”

But he also says that in retrospect Canflow should have insisted that the city clean the sewer before the company resumed operations in 1995.

“In retrospect, we should have insisted the sewer was clean …but by the time you fight through the layers of bureaucracy, you just have to hope for the best.”

If the city doesn’t reinstate Canflow’s permit “they’ll just have another abandoned building in Detroit to deal with,” Paisley says. “Just what they need.”

Paisley concedes that Greendale, with its apparently inadequate sewer system, isn’t the best site for Canflow. The company dumps on average of 8,000 gallons a day, he says, although its permit allows up to 30,000 gallons a day.

“It’s not a good spot,” says Paisley. “It probably would be good if this didn’t exist here. …

“Unfortunately, the poor people have to take the brunt of all negative things in society. If they weren’t poor, they’d move away. I mean, would you buy a house here?”

He says the situation is tough on him too.

“It’s an unpopular job. It’s not a bad job. I’m a high-school dropout. Maybe if I graduated, I’d have a better job.”

Troubled past

In the 1980s, Canflow was investigated by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources in conjunction with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the U.S. Customs Service and Canadian authorities. The probe resulted in a 17-count indictment against Canflow and its owners, Morris Bucke and Dwight Mott. The charges included two felonies for counterfeiting border documents and 15 misdemeanors, including transportation of hazardous waste without a license. The felonies alone could have resulted in a jail sentence of 24 years.

According to case documents, the probe into Canflow’s operations started in 1984 after a routine check at the Bluewater Bridge crossing from Sarnia to Port Huron. A Canflow truck claiming to hold fuel was instead carrying industrial solvents.

The state determined that during six months beginning in October 1984, Canflow hauled 600,000 gallons of hazardous waste over the border. Once in Michigan, it mixed the hazardous solvents and fuel wastes with other chemicals and substances. The hazardous liquid was then sold as boiler fuel, according to the documents.

General Motors bought 400,000 gallons of the toxic substance and burned much of it at its Livonia plant, the documents say, sending cancer-linked chemicals into the air. State officials said at the time that the emissions caused no serious health hazards.

In 1986, the state attorney general accused the men of trafficking hazardous waste into the United States to sell the toxic blend as fuel.

“It was kind of like the identity of the waste was being laundered,” says Lt. Gregory Eagle of DEQ’s office of criminal investigations (formerly a division of DNR) who led the probe. “Canflow was making money on both ends. They were getting paid to take the stuff in Canada and turning around and getting paid to sell it as fuel in Michigan. They were making money in a number of angles.”

When the indictment was issued, the company’s owners, Bucke and Mott, Ontario residents, refused to turn themselves in.

In 1989, a plea agreement was reached. Charges were dropped against Mott, while Bucke pleaded guilty to three misdemeanors and Canflow pleaded guilty to four. The company paid a $50,000 fine to the State of Michigan. Documents show that state officers wanted a larger fine and a more serious sentence, but felt they wouldn’t be able to extradite the suspects and witnesses without heavy costs. As it was, the investigation cost an estimated $49,000.

In addition to the plea, a St. Clair County judge ordered Canflow to enter an agreement with the EPA to fix the environmental and public health hazards at the Greendale site, according to the DNR documents. The toxic material, mainly oils, sludges and solvents in the soil and in storage tanks, was left over from Canflow’s illegal operations during the 1980s as well as from an oil reclamation business that occupied the plant before Canflow bought it in 1984. Canflow completed the cleanup and reopened the plant in 1995.

In an unusual agreement made by the state, the plea stipulated that Michigan authorities would not use the guilty pleas or the case against Canflow, Mott or Bucke in “any operations, permits or licensing” requested by the three in Michigan.

Today, Bucke and Mott’s brother, Tim, continue to operate the Canadian-Michigan waste hauling operation.

Hometown heroes

Terry Blackmore, operations manager for the town of Petrolia, Ontario, is hesitant to say anything negative about Canflow. The town of 4,800 was the site of North America’s first oil rush in the 1880s. It remains an industrial place that suffers the vicissitudes of the changing economy.

Canflow owns a massive chemical dump and former oil refinery in Petrolia and runs a business recycling, reclaiming and disposing of oil, fuel and industrial hazardous and nonhazardous waste collected from manufacturers in Canada’s “Chemical Valley.”

Canflow has been a good corporate citizen in Petrolia, Blackmore says. It sponsors the town’s Western Junior B League hockey team, the Petrolia Canflow Jets, and spent about $50,000 to rebuild the community swimming pool 10 years ago. Currently, Canflow is upgrading the hockey arena, which will be “a real asset.”

“They’ve spent a lot of money in this town,” Blackmore says.

In 1986, the Ontario Ministry of the Environment fined Canflow $3,500 for adversely affecting the environment with leaks and discharges, but the company hasn’t had any run-ins with Canadian officials since then, says Julian Wieder, program manager in the investigation and enforcement branch of the Ministry of the Environment of Ontario.

He says Canflow has a waste management certificate allowing it to transport and store both nonhazardous and hazardous waste. Canflow is allowed to handle up to 1,560 gallons of waste a day or 780 gallons per day on an annual average.

Charles Whipp, the retired editor of the Advertiser-Topic, a weekly newspaper in Petrolia, says that during the 1980s Canflow’s owners were considered “bad guys.” He’s surprised when told the company is disposing nonhazardous wastewater in Detroit’s sewers.

“I thought the American antipollution laws were stricter than the Canadian laws,” Whipp says. “You are threatening the integrity of your sewer system by allowing them to truck in their waste and dump it.”

The reason Petrolia doesn’t accept Canflow’s waste discharges is “because it doesn’t meet the biological oxygen demand. I don’t exactly know how they treat it, simply because if they want to put it into our sewage system, they have to meet our sewage bylaw,” says Blackmore, who notes that the town’s system is small. He says Canflow is upgrading its treatment system and has asked permission to send wastewater to the town’s treatment plant. Blackmore says the town will allow it if the discharge meets its pollutant limits.

Years of muck

Antonio Milan bounces a basketball as he makes his way through an empty lot that contains scattered papers, cans, rusted and burned-out car parts and a fishing boat tipped on its side. He talks quietly with his brother and cousin as they pass the barbed wire fence that surrounds Canflow’s building.

It’s a razor-cold and windy January day. The boys are embarking on a two-mile trek across Interstate 75 to play basketball. They stop when a stranger asks about the company.

Milan explains that every month or so, rotten smelling water and black clumps come up from the sewers into the basement of his home. His aunt sprays down the house with air freshener, but sometimes nothing helps, he says.

Milan’s brother, Edward, and cousin, Cornelyn Lawson, live together on Nevada Street, four blocks from Canflow. They live with five other siblings and cousins and have to take care of problems with the basement and plumbing when the water comes in.

“One time, it came up this high,” said Lawson, 16, placing his hand just below his knee.

“It comes up in the toilets and sinks and then it goes down into the basement and stays a couple of days,” says Antonio, 19. “When the heat comes on, it sucks the smell up from the vents and smells terrible. The smell stays for days.”

The boys head back to the house to illustrate. They pull a lamp connected with several extension cords down into the basement. The room is dark and damp beside the lamplight, and the boys point to the hole where the water comes up every so often and floods the basement. Milan’s aunt, Demetrius Lawson, says she’s been waiting for inspectors to come look at the sewers for years, and calls every time the basement floods.

It’s flooded at least twice since mid-January. “I’ve been waiting so long, I’m tired. We’re waiting all the time,” Lawson says.

Milan shakes his head. “I hope something happens. Because something needs to be done about it,” he says.

Karen Washington is executive director for the nonprofit Emanuel Community House, a community development corporation. Washington recalls she was holding a meeting at her office, located a block from Canflow, to discuss bringing new development to the area when fire marshals told the group to leave. It was mid-October and the city was flushing the sewer system, causing another bad smell.

The sewers in Greendale simply can’t handle the Canflow discharges, she says.

“For years, people have had the muck and mire in their basements,” Washington says. “This area has been allowed to go rock bottom. People feel helpless and hopeless. But even in their state of poverty, and poverty means different things to different people, these people have rallied to their own occasion. The residents have rallied on their own. Despite the economics and the poverty, they are smart enough to know this is wrong and that it is affecting the quality of their life.

“I’m not sure it’s racism per se. I think this was a situation of, ‘Oh, they’re poor, they won’t know any better.’ But clearly, that’s not the case.”

Lisa M. Collins is a Metro Times staff writer. Send comments to [email protected]