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Detroit sewage treatment plant, state plan to settle pollution violations

A wastewater treatment plant.
Photo courtesy of Birmingham Public Schools
A wastewater treatment plant.

The state has proposed an agreement to fix some ongoing problems at Detroit’s wastewater treatment plant.

The consent order from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality cites the Great Lakes Water Authority, which runs the plant, for a number of environmental violations over the past year.

The plant was supposed to stop operating five outdated sewage sludge incinerators in March, 2016. But the GLWA kept using them after a fire seriously damaged new, cleaner replacement equipment that same month.

The MDEQ says that two brand-new bio-solid (sludge) dryers at the facility also exceeded sulfur dioxide emissions limits just after they came online in early 2016. Subsequent tests showed continued violations over a 2-3 month period.

The GLWA also failed to perform required tests, implement monitoring plans, and meet other technical requirements, according to MDEQ.

Lynn Fiedler, Air Quality Division director for the MDEQ, says the proposed consent order gives the agency an “enforceable document” with a compliance plan, and lays out penalties for violations.

“By June 30, 2017, they’re going to need to shut down all that existing equipment [sludge incinerators],” Fiedler said. “They’re going to have to do additional emissions testing, and also do additional monitoring and record keeping, to assure that they are complying with their permits.”

Fiedler says she’s confident GLWA will comply with the agreement. “They’re already doing much of this work,” she said.

But many people who attended a public hearing Tuesday night, at a Detroit community center near the sewage treatment plant, said the deal is too lenient and doesn’t do enough to protect against future violations.

Plant employee Susan Ryan said workers are “very concerned” about health effects on the job, saying the GLWA didn’t inform employees about the sulfur dioxide violations.

Ryan added that the GLWA “has cut staffing throughout the water department, and made it much more difficult for us to provide clean water to the public.”

Nick Leonard, an attorney with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, echoed some of the same concerns.

Not only did the GLWA continue operating the old incinerators “in violation of a federally enforceable regulation for over a year,” but it remains unclear what caused the fire that damaged the new equipment.

“I think there are big issues as to the cause of the fire that caused over a year of violations, and what caused it to miss the deadline to shut down,” Leonard said, quoting plant employees who cited maintenance and understaffing issues.

Leonard also claimed the MDEQ has chosen not to fully penalize GLWA for all the plant’s violations, and said the extended timelines for achieving compliance are too generous. “I do not believe that this consent order amounts to aggressive enforcement,” he said.

The MDEQ points out that the plant’s sulfur dioxide emissions only exceeded legal limits by about 1%, and are “not expected to have resulted in adverse health effects in individuals living near the facility.”

But some residents at the hearing said the sewage plant is just one of many emissions sources in their heavily industrial southwest Detroit community, and that any additional pollution, especially sulfur dioxide, is harmful.

“We breathe this stuff 24-7, 365,” one resident told MDEQ employees. Another said the terms of the agreement seemed like more evidence that “nobody cares about us.”

If the deal is finalized as-is, the GLWA will have to pay a $176,000 fine, and more penalties if there are continued violations.

GLWA CEO Sue McCormick wrote in a recent report that remediation of the fire-damaged incinerator complex is in the “final phase.” She says the whole complex should be up and running by April, though “sludge feeding has been delayed due to an electrical incident resulting from the high winds of March 8, 2017.”

McCormick says the company contracted to run the bio-solids dryer has completed all required “demonstration tests,” and installed a system to reduce sulfur dioxide emissions. Emissions testing is scheduled in May.

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.
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