DEQ to Residents: Shut Up and Take Your Hazardous Waste Well
Imagine yourself stuck for two hours in traffic on I-94 near Detroit Metro Airport. You find out later that emergency crews were struggling to rescue workers and schoolchildren overcome by gases from a hazardous waste chemical release. This scene is not unheard of — nor unlikely — in the industrial and commuter-clogged zones of the nation. But it would be especially tragic for the people of Romulus and Taylor, two suburban Detroit communities already burdened by I-94 congestion, airport noise, and industrial sites.
Since the early 1990s, Romulus and Taylor residents have struggled to prevent Environmental Disposal Systems, a company with big investors but no experience, from building a hazardous waste injection well in their midst. This summer, Department of Environmental Quality director Russell Harding is expected to give the company a construction permit, despite overwhelming public opposition and a strong recommendation against the project from the state’s Hazardous Waste Site Review Board.
“It’s as though the site review board didn’t matter,” says Fred Zorn, Taylor’s director of economic development. The DEQ has told the press and local officials that it cannot deny a project that it finds environmentally safe even if other experts find the location to be extremely dangerous. “The site review board gets to look at everything from property values to traffic patterns,” DEQ spokesman Ken Silfven told the Detroit News in April. “That’s way beyond our scope.”
State Can Ignore People
But that’s not true. The state’s hazardous waste law gives DEQ every right to concur with the site review board and spare the community. Yet ever since a 1991 executive order from Gov. Engler, the site review board no longer has the final say over construction permits for hazardous waste sites.
That means the DEQ director does not have to pay attention to the findings of the site review board — made up of scientists, industry representatives, and public interests — which spent months taking extensive testimony. In its March recommendation, the site review board concluded that sufficient market demand for EDS’s proposed facility does not exist and that its proposed location is patently unsafe for workers, the local community, and the more than 130,000 vehicles that travel I-94 near Detroit Metro Airport every day. Among the board’s reasons:
• Inadequate access to the site for deliveries or emergency vehicles.
• Added high-risk traffic to intersections that are already among the region’s worst in numbers of accidents.
• Inadequate safety and rescue resources in the community.
• An abundance of existing, in-state commercial hazardous waste treatment and disposal facilities, as well as a nearby injection well in Vickery, Ohio, that operates at only 30 percent of its capacity.
The board told DEQ in its report that it would be folly to put the proposed hazardous waste burden on the communities of Romulus and Taylor given that the market, in short, does not need EDS’s injection well.
It now is up to the DEQ director to make the call, however, and Mr. Harding’s office has given plenty of indications which way it is leaning.
“DEQ repeatedly argued with the company against the testimony and evidence we gave to the site review board,” says State Rep. Ray Basham, (D-Taylor), who represents the district. “And in February 1999, before EDS even applied for this permit, Mr. Harding told city officials and myself to cut a deal with the company because he intended to issue it.”
Romulus resident Verle Wilhilde says she sees no reason why she and her neighbors should accept the hazardous waste injection well. “We are already environmentally challenged with industrial wastes.”
This project cannot help a community trying to protect property values and public health, adds Helena Lilly, a resident who’s been active in the campaign to bar the well. “There’s no need for this facility other than to profit a few at the expense of many. They’ll wind up putting it in if John Engler wants it there, even if it puts a lot of people at risk for nothing.”
CONTACTS: Rep. Ray Basham, 517-373-0852; Verle Wilhide,734-941-3149; Steve Sliver, DEQ Waste Management Division, 517-373-9523.