A coalition of residents and community stakeholders concerned about a hazardous waste storage and treatment site in Detroit’s Poletown East neighborhood met last month with representatives from Republic Services, the plant’s owner, to discuss the future of the facility and its health impacts in the area.
Known as Detroit South or US Ecology South, the plant — located at 1923 Frederick St. — came under the ownership of Republic in 2022 and has received at least 28 odor violations at the site, in addition to other safety violations, since 2015.
The facility accepts waste via tankers, trucks or rail cars from other companies or organizations who employ them to properly dispose of the materials. Oily waste, organic waste and wastewater with metal is treated and processed at the plant. Other waste is solidified so that it can be suitably discarded.
The plant is facing multiple ongoing investigations by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) — the state’s environmental regulatory agency — with a violation notice issued Sept. 12, related to repeated “container management issues.”
The facility also received a violation notice in May after liquid was found in the leak detection ports of its vaults. As a result of that violation, EGLE advised the company to immediately pause operations in its Chem-Fix building until it is in compliance with federal regulations. Republic ceased operations in that part of the plant — which works to stabilize waste — on June 9, and is still working with the state to come up with a path forward.
In late December of 2022, a fire started at the plant that is suspected to have come from a flammable material that was accepted from an out-of-state customer.
Residents share concerns with Republic
About a dozen members of the Detroit Hamtramck Coalition for Advancing Healthy Environments and other concerned citizens gathered in a church on Chene Street in Detroit Oct. 12 to speak with representatives from Republic Services about their safety concerns.
“We don’t feel that the facility has a place in the community,” Detroit resident Adam Verville told Republic representatives at the meeting. “No matter what comes of this, no matter what community benefits you do, no matter what improvements you make to your operations, many of us will continue to use every single legal and regulatory remedy that we have available to us to make your existence in the neighborhood very uncomfortable.”
Listen: Unedited tape from the Oct. 12 meeting between Republic Services and residents
Thomas Pemberton, whose family has lived in the neighborhood for four generations, spoke next.
“I am concerned about the unknown and the health and safety effects it will have on my children and grandchildren and my community,” he said.
While the end goal for many community members is to see the plant shut down completely, if the facility remains open then residents want to be assured that it does not pose a health risk. Many specifically want Republic Services to prove that the foul odor emanating from the plant is safe to breathe.
Scott Binder, Republic’s central area president and a former general manager of the plant, assured residents at the meeting that the company has medical monitoring programs for the facility’s workers that have not detected any issues. However, Binder said due to HIPAA rules that information cannot be made public.
“If you’re saying you’re doing monitoring then there should be a way for you to actually prove that,” said resident Tim Nutt, who lives near the plant. “Make a report that your workers are safe and have been safe for the last 10, 15, 20 years.”
Representatives from Republic did not directly respond to this point during the meeting, but did go on to say that the company is open to collectively coming up with a process for residents to report odors to the company, as a complement to reporting to EGLE.
US Ecology entered into a consent order with EGLE’s Materials Management Division in September 2022 to address the ongoing odor issues. As of August 2022, the plant had not resolved the outstanding violations and was considered by the agency to be noncompliant with “Rule 901,” which “prohibits emissions of an air contaminant in qualities that cause either a) injurious effects to human health or safety, animal life, plant life or significant economic value, or property; or b) unreasonable interference with the comfortable enjoyment of life and property.”
Reverend Sharon Buttry, volunteer facilitator for the Detroit Hamtramck Coalition, also voiced concerns shared by residents at a previous community meeting that they would like Republic to prioritize, including better truck management, road improvement, more thorough air monitoring, addressing sewer issues and creating a buffer between the plant and the community.
Buttry said the coalition suspects “a lot of the odors may actually be trapped in the sanitary sewer system and creating certain conditions, perhaps anaerobic conditions, that are creating odors that are not particularly from the facility but as a result of wastewater flowing from the facility.”
Following the discussion — and a meal provided by the company for attendees — Russ Knocke, vice president of public and government affairs at Republic Services, shared a presentation and answered additional questions about the company’s efforts to remediate these ongoing issues.
Afterward he told WDET: “We’ve got a lot more work to do with the community to help them understand who we are, what we do, how much we care about this community and identify some ways, some commonalities for us to move forward together.”
He told attendees that Republic is ready to meet with residents again in December or January.
Listen: Republic’s Russ Knocke on issues at US Ecology South and how its engaged with the community