When hazardous waste from the East Palestine train derailment was shipped to Michigan in February, it raised concerns about possible impacts on water quality and the safety of transporting such materials.
It’s also creating some legislative pushback.
State Rep. James DeSana (R-Carleton) introduced a bill on April 20 that would prohibit drilling new multisource commercial hazardous waste wells in Michigan. DeSana told Planet Detroit that the bill was prompted by the shipment of waste from East Palestine, Ohio to the Detroit Industrial Well in Romulus and ongoing concerns that the facility’s waste could escape.
“It does not benefit our state or our local communities in any way, shape or form,” DeSana said. He said there was a lack of financial benefit for his district’s residents, including the well.
And state Rep. Reggie Miller (D-Van Buren Township), a co-sponsor for DeSana’s bill, said she and Sen. Darrin Camilleri (D-Trenton) plan to introduce legislation to raise disposal fees for solid hazardous waste before the summer recess.
“Currently, local governments are asked to take all of the risks of housing this waste without receiving any funding to support these sites,” Miller told Planet Detroit. “By increasing these fees, we may be able to better support the local communities dealing with this waste, and it may discourage other states from bringing us their waste.”
But Desana said he likely wouldn’t support a bill to raise landfill disposal fees. He said he wouldn’t want to see his community become “dependent upon the disposal fees” if they were raised.
The contaminated materials from East Palestine added to the state’s already prodigious amount of hazardous waste. In 2019, Michigan facilities treated, stored, recycled, or disposed of 695,000 tons of hazardous waste, handling more of these materials than 42 other states. And much of this lands in Metro Detroit, which is home to 10 of Michigan’s 15 hazardous waste facilities.
Following the derailment, over 300,000 gallons of wastewater containing vinyl chloride from East Palestine were injected into the Romulus well. And 360 tons of contaminated soil were taken to the US Ecology Wayne Disposal Landfill in Van Buren Township, the largest hazardous waste facility by volume in the country. Both facilities are owned by Republic Services.
The arrival of these contaminated materials reignited a discussion on the impact hazardous waste facilities have on low-income areas and communities of color. At events in Van Buren Township and Romulus, environmental experts and lawmakers raised the possibility of increasing the fees on waste coming to these sites. Yet, it’s unclear if this would curb the amount of material coming to Michigan – or if there’s enough political will to put higher fees in place.
At a town hall in Van Buren Township on May 4, Rep. Debbie Dingell (D-Dearborn) zeroed in on tipping fees for landfills as an obvious target for reform, pointing out that Michigan’s fees have been much lower than surrounding states in recent years.
These fees apply to standard landfill waste, while solid waste going to hazardous facilities is subject to a $10 per ton surcharge from the state. That’s lower than at least one neighboring state, Wisconsin, which charges hazardous waste producers a $20 per ton surcharge. In both states, several other charges also apply.
But Jeff Johnston, a spokesperson for Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE), said that higher fees might not curb the amount of hazardous waste coming to Michigan because relatively few places will take such waste across the country.
“Many facilities would need to use the closest authorized hazardous waste disposal facility, no matter the surcharge, as it might still be cheaper than the next available authorized facility, which could be more than halfway across the country,” Johnston said.
Liquid waste is another matter — there is no per-unit surcharge for liquid waste at facilities like Romulus’ deep injection well.
Yet, raising the surcharge on solid waste would at least generate additional revenue for EGLE’s hazardous waste program, even if it doesn’t reduce the amount of hazardous material coming to Michigan.
Waste companies are likely to push back on such legislation. At the town hall, Rep. Shri Thanedar (D-Detroit) said that these businesses have a “strong corporate lobby,” while residents generally lack this influence.
For example, US Ecology, which was acquired by Republic Services in 2022, made large donations to Michigan politicians. The company gave $5,000 to Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s campaign in April 2022 and gave Wayne County Executive Warren Evans $2,500. Several other politicians received smaller donations that month, including Rep. Miller, whose campaign was paid $500.
It’s unclear if Republic Services will engage in the same level of political spending in Michigan. But according to data from Open Secrets, the company’s political action committee is a major donor, spending $117,500 on state and local candidates in 2021 and 2022 and giving $24,000 to federal candidates.
A representative for Republic Services declined to comment on legislation to raise fees on hazardous waste disposal in Michigan or to prohibit drilling new deep injection wells.
The Van Buren town hall was preceded by an April 18 special hearing in Romulus on Republic’s renewal license for the above-ground waste processing and storage at its deep injection well. This event highlighted the facility’s history of violations and problems at other hazardous waste sites. So far, there’s been no determination on the renewal license for the Romulus facility, according to Hugh McDiarmid, communication manager for EGLE.
In 2018, the former owner was cited for failing to close and label containers, stockpiling wastes for more than 90 days, failing to sign a returned manifest, and having an inadequate leak detection system. Nick Schroeck, an environmental law expert at the University of Detroit Mercy, said these problems are significant.
“When we’re talking about hazardous waste, record keeping is incredibly important,” he said. “The way that we prevent uncontrolled hazardous waste sites from being developed or the way that we prevent unscrupulous bad actors from being involved in this game is by having very strict record-keeping requirements.”
Rhonda Anderson, an environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club, also spoke at the Romulus hearing, drawing attention to what hazardous waste does to communities. She recalled problems with the Canadian firm Canflow Environmental Services in the 1990s and 2000s, when state officials repeatedly cited the company for dumping hazardous waste into Detroit sewers that backed up into homes.
More recently, those living near Republic’s US Ecology South facility in Detroit’s Poletown East neighborhood have complained of foul odors that smell like rotting fish and permanent marker.
Schroeck said these impacts were felt primarily by marginalized communities. He said that in Michigan, 65% of those who live within a three-mile radius of a hazardous waste facility are people of color. However, they make up only 25% of the overall population. He added that in Romulus, 46% of those living near the facility were low-income, and 40% were people of color.
Russ Knocke, vice president for public and government affairs at Republic Services, defended the company’s operations at the Van Buren Township meeting and promised to be responsive to issues like odor at the Poletown East facility. He said the company had limited its intake of certain materials to reduce these issues, installed “odor control systems,” and started doing daily odor surveys.
Meanwhile, Liz Browne, materials management division director for EGLE, told those at the Romulus meeting that the agency’s power to influence these facilities is limited, especially with already established operations like the deep injection well.
“We understand sometimes public sentiment is not in favor of having these facilities where they’re located, but by law, that is not something that we can take into account in our review,” she said.
Schroeck agreed with Brown that it was difficult to shut down these operations once they were established but said the state could still be doing more to protect overburdened communities, especially with new facilities.
“Certainly, moving forward, I think we need to have a more aggressive approach towards permitting and licensing,” he said. He added that the legislature could enact new fees and requirements for these facilities, making Michigan a less attractive dumping ground for hazardous waste from other states.