Dozens of violations, just $2,000 in fines for Detroit hazardous waste site
A noxious hazardous waste facility in Detroit was fined just $2,000 by state regulators over the last decade for dozens of environmental violations. Meanwhile, the company’s latest offenses went unnoticed for five years – even though the facility was inspected approximately 40 times by state officials.
The violations for US Ecology South range from persistent and strong odors to improper hazardous waste handling and residents in the central Detroit neighborhood say it affects their health and quality of life.
In 2020, the company reached a legal agreement with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to address its ongoing issues and lay out fines for future violations. But the operation at 1923 Frederick Street has been cited 14 more times since then without much repercussion. EGLE could have fined the company at least $7,000, but only imposed financial penalty for a couple violations while dozens more accrued over the years without penalty.
Meanwhile, five years and eight annual inspections went by before EGLE caught US Ecology’s 41st violation in less than a decade. This April state officials discovered a leak that could be contaminating groundwater and US Ecology failed to report it. Residents, law advocates, and elected officials say the scenario further calls into question the strength of EGLE’s enforcement and inspection process.
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“Two thousand (dollars) is such a slap on the wrist,” said Melissa Sargent, a neighbor and activist. “The fact that … they (EGLE) fined them for two out of 41 violations in the past decade? That’s atrocious, that’s infuriating.”
After years of unresolved complaints about US Ecology, resident Adam Verville wonders if EGLE is choosing not to enforce the rules or if the state actually lacks the power to do so.
“The number of violations that they’ve had – if you just follow logic it would seem that they would be able to initiate some stronger enforcement actions against them,” he said.
EGLE spokesperson Jill Greenberg said US Ecology was only fined for some of the violations of its order because the company is working to implement changes to its odor control measures. The order, she said, allows the state to require modifications to the company’s odor control plan, to pursue penalties, or both.
“[US Ecology] has significant violations that need to be resolved and EGLE has initiated an enforcement process that will hold them accountable,” EGLE added in a statement to BridgeDetroit. “It is essential that US Ecology resolve these issues in a way that is protective of public health and the environment.”
Executive Director at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center Nicholas Leonard said the state could still issue financial penalties even if the company is working to improve, and reiterated that there are “clear penalty provisions” that allow for it.
“I think it would be appropriate to do so,” Leonard said. “That seems to strengthen the incentive for the company to comply with the law in the future if they know they’re going to be held accountable for violations,” he said.
Sargent, who lives in the same neighborhood as the facility, said EGLE’s handling of US Ecology is reminiscent of the former Detroit incinerator that plagued the same neighborhood with air pollution for decades.
The incinerator at 5700 Russell Street caused constant odor and noise concerns for nearby residents. It was in violation of state rules 750 times in a five-year period, but the company was only fined $149,000 for eight violations, according to a 2019 Detroit Free Press investigation. In 2019, after years of protest from residents and organizers, the incinerator was shut down and it was demolished over the last year.
“EGLE told us at that time that they had to go into negotiations with facilities there,” Sargent said of the incinerator. “They felt like their hands were tied, that they couldn’t fine them the maximum amount – that didn’t ever make sense to us as a community. If they’re violating and there are set fines for this specific violation, what’s the point? Why are they not getting that monetary fine?”
Sargent said she was troubled to learn that EGLE inspected the US Ecology facility eight times per year and did not catch the leak until recently.
EGLE said the tank where the leak was discovered is typically in use, so a recent visit when it was out of service offered a different view. EGLE told BridgeDetroit that the department is “committed to continuous improvement” and is evaluating its licensing and inspection practices to improve oversight. The department also has hired a professional engineer to which all treatment, storage, and disposal facilities in southeast Michigan have been assigned.
“This person is looking at the treatment systems from a more technical perspective,” the statement provided to BridgeDetroit notes. The agency also plans to add additional staff to the hazardous waste licensing program based on the budget approved by the legislature in June “to ensure more timely review of license applications.”
Roman Blahoski, director of external communications for Republic Services, which owns US Ecology, said operations at US Ecology South are paused while the company installs new equipment and conducts tests at the site to determine the cause of the leak and the contents of the water.
“Republic Services is committed to operating safely, responsibly and with care for the environment,” Blahoski said in an email to BridgeDetroit. The company has not commented on why it failed to report the leak to state regulators.
The company is installing 12 groundwater monitoring devices and replacing a storage tank with a new tank system as well as finalizing a schedule to update the other storage tanks at the site.
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said EGLE’s minimal monetary fines for US Ecology are “unacceptable.”
“We’re really taken aback” about US Ecology’s latest violation, she told BridgeDetroit, noting concerns about a lack of transparency from the company.
In December 2022, Tlaib and Rep. Ro Khanna, D-California, sent a letter to US Ecology and Stellantis, another repeat air quality violator on Detroit’s east side, requesting more information about the facilities’ plans to protect the health of residents.
“We don’t believe that [US Ecology] meets any of the rules and regulations,” said Tlaib, adding a lot of questions she and residents have asked of US Ecology have been deflected.
Tlaib said the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) needs to “step it up” and either shut down the facility or do something about the expired permit the company has been operating under for years.
An EPA spokesperson said the state of Michigan has the primary responsibility for enforcing the hazardous waste program, but that the EPA has been providing technical assistance to EGLE regarding portions of the permit renewal application for US Ecology.
“Although the permit expired in December 2008, [US Ecology] applied to renew the permit and is allowed to continue operating under their expired permit (operating license) per Michigan rules,” the EPA said in a statement.
According to EGLE, the state cannot reissue the license while there are unresolved violations at the facility.
The revelation of the leak has raised other concerns for environmental lawyer Leonard. By default, industrial facilities like US Ecology have to conduct soil and groundwater testing, but EGLE can grant a waiver if it chooses. EGLE previously granted a waiver to US Ecology North and South, meaning they don’t currently have to conduct testing.
Leonard said US Ecology’s multi-year leak and failure to report it is an example of why the waivers might not be a good idea.
“It raises back into question that practice, basically of them issuing waivers for environmental monitoring to detect potential releases like this,” he said.
When the investigation of the leak is complete, US Ecology will have to routinely monitor groundwater again, according to EGLE.
Some worry EGLE won’t be the answer to the issues with US Ecology and have turned to other avenues.
Verville, who was a part of two class-action suits regarding the incinerator, said he and other community members are working to form a class-action case against US Ecology after feeling like neither EGLE nor the EPA are going to help.
He said his interactions with EGLE staff have always been good, but he gets the impression they don’t have the resources to effectively enforce the law.
“Whether it’s by choice or whether their hands are tied – I don’t see [regulators] leading the fight against the facility,” he said. “The situation is going to ultimately require residents and we’re gonna have to organize class action suits and enforce regulators.” He added, “I think that’s unfortunate that residents have to be in the position of becoming regulators basically.”
Residents can report odors or issues to EGLE by calling (800) 292-4706 or make a complaint with the EPA, here.
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