KALAMAZOO, MI – When Michigan State environmental researchers flew a drone to search for potentially harmful chemicals in a part of Kalamazoo, they skipped a sprawling factory that is a known source of some of the chemicals in question. .
The delay was to allow time for the plant to finish “solving the problems” of its new expansion, according to an internal email between state health and environmental officials obtained by MLive/Kalamazoo. Gazette, in which a state official said the company might be more willing to allow access to their property for an inspection in the fall.
“This operation has already started and started in February, however, they are still working on fixing the issues,” Monica Brothers, EGLE’s senior environmental quality analyst, said in a May 2 email. obtained by the Kalamazoo Gazette/MLive via a Freedom of Information Act request. .
“Jay said the ‘troubleshooting’ process could take the summer, so GPI would be more open to doing the drone study above their installation in the fall,” Brothers said. in the internal email at the Michigan Department of Health and Brandon Reid, social services toxicologist. Jay Olaguer, deputy director of the air quality division, is referenced in the email.
EGLE spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said Graphic Packaging wants to wait until the fall of 2022, when all of the equipment installed with their facility expansion should be fully operational. EGLE also attributes the delay to differences in site topography.
“GPI’s terrain (building heights, chimneys, steam plumes) is much more complex than the Kalamazoo Water Reclamation Facility’s flying terrain. Therefore, it took longer to make proper preparations to fly a drone at GPI,” Greenberg said.
State researchers have since pushed back the possible study at Graphic Packaging until 2023, she said.
Residents said they noticed changes at Graphic Packaging when the new equipment went live earlier this year.
In February, four months before Graphic Packaging’s defect email exchange, Brandi Crawford-Johnson, a former Northside resident and environmental justice activist, emailed Reid and said the residents had noticed what looked like black “smoke” coming from the factory and that it was harder for them to breathe. Residents also sent videos of the factory broadcasts to MLive.
“Is there anything MDHHS can do to help you?” Crawford-Johnson asked the department in a February email obtained by MLive from the state.
David Benac, an associate professor of history at Western Michigan University and a member of the environmental concerns committee for the city of Kalamazoo, joined Northside residents and others on the steps of City Hall to protest the issues air pollution last week.
“It seems like states should be able to test the air and shouldn’t have to ask for permission,” Benac said of the drone study.
Greenberg said that, based on a 2016 Michigan law, a government agency cannot take action on a facility using a drone, barring exceptions. Exceptions include obtaining express consent from the landlord, or if the agency has a valid search warrant, or if the agency believes there may be an imminent threat to public health.
The drone flew over the City of Kalamazoo Wastewater Treatment Plant on May 23-24 and found high levels of chemicals including formaldehyde, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide.
Graphic Packaging is a known source of some of the toxic chemicals studied, including hydrogen sulfide, which can aggravate existing asthma.
Graphic Packaging told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette that it did not receive a request from EGLE to fly a drone over the facility this summer, but it has agreed to provide drone access to fly over the facility. installation this fall.
The EGLE drone flies over the Kalamazoo wastewater treatment plant
“Graphic Packaging is committed to working with EGLE, which is why we have approved the bespoke drone flyover for (volatile organic compounds),” the company said in a Sept. 14 statement.
The company said it couldn’t speculate what “fixing the problems” means, but the facility is committed to keeping the new machines running safely.
“There are many complexities in bringing a machine of this size and innovation online, but we are grateful for the hard work of our team members and EGLE in completing this process,” the company said.
Residents expressed that they felt they were being experimented on due to a lack of responsibility and that their health was in danger. Some locals have complained about delays in the investigation. The problem is prevalent in the city’s Northside, a predominantly black neighborhood.
Former resident Adrian Johnson, the husband of Brandi Crawford-Johnson, said he believes the neighborhood is the product of redlining, a historic practice that placed black families in undesirable places by refusing bank loans.
Related: Health, odor and air quality concerns have been raised for years in Kalamazoo, even before the plant was allowed to expand
“I feel like we’re just guinea pigs,” said Johnson, who is black. “We are the mouse on the wheel and everyone is just victims.”
Johnson has kidney disease, he said. He lived around 36 years on the Northside and left town in November 2020.
Crawford-Johnson, who takes several different legal avenues to try to get justice, says she doesn’t think government officials will do the right thing on their own.
She believes there is a conflict of interest, as state and local government entities have granted funds to Graphic Packaging and approved its expansion.
Related: $21 Million in Tax Relief Approved for Major Graphic Packaging Expansion in Kalamazoo
The company received state money, including brownfield redevelopment funds and state approval of tax-exempt bonds to help fund the plant’s expansion.
Wastewater treatment plant overruns
The City of Kalamazoo Wastewater Treatment Plant treats wastewater from residential customers, as well as large industrial users, including Graphic Packaging in Kalamazoo and Pfizer in Portage.
In May, the drone detected chemicals in the air above the city’s sewage treatment plant, including formaldehyde, hydrogen sulfide and sulfur dioxide, each exceeding set minimum risk levels by the Centers for Disease Control Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry.
Minimum risk levels are estimates, established by the federal government, of how much of a chemical a person can eat, drink or breathe each day without detectable health risk. Exceedances of the minimum risk level mean researchers should take a closer look at a site, according to the state health department.
The highest formaldehyde readings were 0.864 parts per million, according to MLive data obtained from the city. This amount is above the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s permissible exposure limit for an eight-hour exposure.
“The employer must ensure that no employee is exposed to an airborne formaldehyde concentration greater than 0.75 parts of formaldehyde per million parts of air (0.75 parts per million) over 8 hours (total weight average)”, according to Michigan General Industry and Jobsite Safety and Health Standards.
On July 21, 2022, the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration launched an ongoing inspection at the City of Kalamazoo’s water resources division, said Erica Quealy, assistant director of communications at the Michigan Department of Labor and Economic Opportunity. , at MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette. The inspection was initiated based on a recommendation from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, she said.
“MIOSHA cannot provide information on an open inspection,” Quealy said. “Generally, this type of inspection can take several weeks or several months.”
The City of Kalamazoo told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette “there may be detectable levels of formaldehyde inside the plant property which would require additional on-site safety policy and procedures. work”.
Residents are tired of waiting for the problem to be solved.
“They’re killing us,” Deann Winfield told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette last week during a protest on the steps of Kalamazoo City Hall. She and her son suffer from asthma. They were both hospitalized with respiratory issues for several days at different times in August, Winfield said.
She thinks pollution is a factor in why her family is sick. Her daughter died after an asthma attack several years ago, Winfield said.
Residents and government officials await the state’s health consultation on air quality and odor issues near Graphic Packaging and the Kalamazoo Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is still underway, Chelsea Wuth, associate public information officer for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette this week.
“We are working to incorporate the results of the May 2022 drone study,” Wuth said. “The health consultation will be published as soon as it is ready. We do not expect any future sampling.
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