‘We can’t even keep our windows open’:  Poletown East residents protest outside US Ecology South plant ahead of permit renewal

Strong odors filled the air outside of the US Ecology South facility Thursday as a group of Michigan politicians joined with community members and organizations to demand that the City of Detroit establish a Host Community Agreement with US Ecology South. 

The company is seeking a permit renewal from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to continue operating its hazardous waste facility at Kirby Street and St. Aubin in Detroit’s Poletown East neighborhood.

While the crowd listened to speakers, a truck circled inside the facility, spraying water to cut down on the dust and fumes.

State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib and Sen. Stephanie Chang spoke with community members and representatives from the Detroit Hamtramck Coalition for Advancing Healthy Environments, Breathe Free Detroit and the Ecology Center, calling on US Ecology to be a better neighbor. 

Resident Pamela McGhee, whose parents purchased their home on Dubois Street in 1954, thought closing the incinerator would bring relief to this neighborhood. For over 30 years, she said, her community has dealt with noxious odors. 

Now, she wonders if the odors many attributed to the incinerator actually originated at the US Ecology plant. 

“We can’t even keep our windows open in the summer,” she said.

US Ecology treats hazardous waste like acids, alkalis, heavy metals, liquids, solids, sludges. It operates under multiple environmental permits for hazardous waste, air quality, and water quality and has a history of frequent violations of those permits. Since 2014, US Ecology North has received 23 violation notices from EGLE due to noxious odor violations.

Organizer KT Andresky put on a mask during the event because of the odors coming from the facility, describing the smell as a mixed batch of rotting fish and permanent marker. “It’s a major concern,” they said.

Rev. Sharon Buttry, a volunteer organizer with the Detroit Hamtramck Coalition for Advancing Healthy Environments, said previous attempts to bring US Ecology into compliance have not worked because the fines they have received for the more than 30 violations are “like a drop in a bucket” to the multinational company.

“Michigan is in the top five states in the nation for diseases related to air quality,” Buttry said. “We should all be wearing masks today because the air here is not fit to breathe.”

Chang started her speech by expressing dismay that “in 2022, we still have to advocate for the right to breathe clean air.” “Everyone deserves to live in a neighborhood free of pollution and knowing that their city will have their back when it comes to their protections for a good quality of life,” she said.

She called for legislation to require that permitters examine the cumulative impact of air pollution on the health of residents. Chang also noted that the Michigan Legislature has failed to ensure that money companies pay when they violate their air quality permits returns to the community. 

Tlaib, hoisting a sign that read, “We Can’t Breathe!”, said that environmental racism is at the core of decisions to allow facilities like US Ecology to operate in predominantly Black communities. “What kind of system allows the sacrifice of Black and brown and low-income communities to corporate polluters?” she said.

US Ecology also operates another facility just to the north called US Ecology North. US Ecology South will soon change its name to Republic Services.

Aiyash said that this problem is unique to communities of color. ”Somehow, all of these facilities tend to get built, all these permits tend to be issued in communities where everyone is a little bit more Black, a little bit more brown, a little bit more poor than the rest of the state,” he said. “And these folks will then end up breathing this air, drinking this water, planting food in the soil that is toxic.”

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