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Despite history of violations, hazardous waste facility in Detroit set to expand

US Ecology exterior
Jennifer Fassbender

US Ecology, an Idaho-based company, is close to receiving approval for a large expansion of its hazardous waste facility on Detroit’s east side, near Hamtramck.

The expansion would increase the facility’s storage capacity nine-fold, from 76,000 to 677,000 gallons. 

In addition to storing hazardous chemicals, the facility also pretreats liquid waste before releasing it into Detroit’s sewer system.

A 2016 investigation by the Detroit Free Press found that the facility exceeded allowable discharge limits more than 150 times between 2010 and 2016. Mercury, arsenic, and cyanide were among those chemicals being released into the city sewer system at levels above the maximum limit. 

According to John Truscott, a spokesman for US Ecology, “Most of the exceedances happened before US Ecology bought the facility in 2012, and there have been major and significant improvements since then.”

The Free Press investigation, however, showed significant violations after 2012, including a six-month stretch of "significant noncompliance" for titanium levels in 2013.

Despite the facility’s spotty history, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) is completing its approval of US Ecology’s proposed expansion. Richard Conforti, supervisor of the management and tracking unit for MDEQ, says the agency is following legal guidelines as it considers whether to grant the permit. 

“The DEQ does proceed cautiously under the federal laws to renew US Ecology’s licenses,” said Conforti.

Residents, environmental activists, and lawyers, though, are challenging the MDEQ over the permitting process and general commitment to environmental quality.

Noah Hall, founder of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center (GLELC) and professor of law at Wayne State University, is a sharp critic of MDEQ. He said the agency often gives polluters a free pass in Michigan, especially “in disenfranchised communities and in populations that our political system hasn’t cared much about.”

GLELC points out that 10,000 people live within one mile of US Ecology’s facility. A large number of those residents are immigrants with limited English proficiency.

“The DEQ has failed to hold the public hearings that this community deserves, not just the number of public hearings, but in the languages and in the forums that are accessible to the people in this community,” Hall said.

In response to charges of environmental racism in the permitting process, Conforti cited the longstanding history of the facility and the industrial complex it sits on.

“Based on zoning, which is put out by the city of Detroit and Wayne County, this facility is allowed to be here,” he said.

While Hall acknowledges that the city and county have options to “mitigate the impacts” of the facility, he says this situation is emblematic of a bigger problem.

“At the end of the day, these are decisions made by our state Department of Environmental Quality, and the citizens of Detroit, and really the citizens of the entire state, deserve a Department of Environmental Quality that is looking out for them and their public health," Hall said. 

Listen above.

This post was written by Stateside production assistant Joey Horan.

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Stateside is produced daily by a dedicated group of producers and production assistants. Listen daily, on-air, at 3 and 8 p.m., or subscribe to the daily podcast wherever you like to listen.
Joey Horan is a production assistant at Stateside. He lives on the banks of the Maumee River in Toledo, Ohio, where he also works as a freelance reporter.
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