US Ecology sign
US Ecology in Poletown has had 36 violations since 2014. The company is refuting the most recent in October, saying the odor detected wasn’t severe enough to warrant a complaint. Neighbors and advocates say they worry about ongoing impacts of the operation on groundwater and homes nearby. (BridgeDetroit photo by Jena Brooker)

The operators of a controversial hazardous waste facility in Poletown are responding to the facility’s latest violation by arguing to state regulators that the odors weren’t strong enough to warrant complaints.

US Ecology, in recent days, responded to the October violation – the 36th for the site since 2014 and one of several that company officials have denied – didn’t meet the criteria required to be cited.

On Oct. 19, US Ecology got notice of the violation from a state inspector for moderate to strong odors detected Oct. 13 and 17 at the facility on Frederick Street. The site stores and treats hazardous waste materials and has been the frequent subject of resident complaints over strong odors in the neighborhood ranging from bleach to rotting fish.

Chemical engineer and former DuPont employee, Denise Trabbic-Pointer, now a toxics and remediation specialist for the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter, has conducted an analysis of US Ecology’s violations and responses.

She and other scientists said they are concerned that US Ecology’s odors could be indicative of pollutants entering groundwater or the soil, and then transferring into nearby homes. 

“If the groundwater is impacted, we wouldn’t know,” she said. US Ecology formerly conducted  regular monitoring of the groundwater, but after years of clean results the facility was granted a waiver from the state’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy that exempted the company from further groundwater monitoring. 

Trabbic-Pointer said the city and US Ecology should install cameras to monitor for any damaged sections of the sewer that could be leaking, potentially due to pollutants like hydrogen sulfide, which can corrode a sewer system, she said. 

In 2019, a study was published in the Journal of the American Water Resources Association pointing to some evidence that the sewers are leaking. The study found that at nearby Recovery Park, 40% of the inflow into the sewers during dry weather was groundwater, meaning that “groundwater can get in, and odors can get out,” said Mike Wilczynski, a geologist with Pangea Environmental, LLC., and a former senior geologist for the state’s Department of Environmental Quality, now EGLE.

“The sewers leak, so anything US Ecology dischargers to the sewers can get released to the environment, and that includes odors,” he said. 

Rainwater can also raise the level of sewers, which can displace air and vapors, resulting in a smell, with vapors getting pushed into soil where it can then enter homes through the basement and cracks in the foundation, he added. It’s an area of focus for Wayne State University where researchers received $11 million to research how this kind of pollution affects adverse birth and other health outcomes

In response to the latest violation notice, John Barta, US Ecology Detroit South’s general manager told the state in a Nov. 9 letter that the company “does not agree the detected odors warrant a violation.”

Barta wrote that the “odors from the operation on the days in question were not persistent and objectionable odors of moderate to strong intensity (level 3 and 4),” which, he noted, is criteria for a violation. 

Barta said that following the complaints, an environmental and operations manager conducted four investigations to see if odors were traveling to the nearby neighborhood and found a “light odor.” 

US Ecology officials also reported asking a resident nearby if they smelled odors to which they said there was a “sewer light” smell from nearby standing water, which the manager verified. But

it was determined that the odor was not strong enough to “warrant complaints,” the letter reads. The odors were also not picked up by a scentometer, a device that measures the strength of odors, the company noted. 

Jill Greenberg, a spokesperson for EGLE, said that the department is reviewing the violation and “will continue to respond to and evaluate odor complaints.” 

On a visit this summer, Wilczynski said US Ecology smelled like an “organic chemistry lab.”

Wilczynski said there could be pollution at low enough concentrations that it wouldn’t smell, but it still could still be entering homes. 

“There is an issue that needs to be addressed to that neighborhood,” he said. 

In its response letter, US Ecology asked the state to relay complaints more quickly to company officials so they can investigate the cause of the odor. The company also is urging EGLE to start using a scentometer to measure odors as a more objective method, and asked for specific addresses of the complaints. 

“… there are complaints which are strictly coming in to eradicate the facility from the neighborhood. Having the address allows evaluations to be done to determine what location is arbitrarily calling and what locations are legitimately calling out issues,” Barta wrote.

In 2020, US Ecology entered into an agreement with EGLE to control odors. Sharon Buttry, a facilitator for the Detroit Hamtramck Coalition for Advancing Healthy Environment noted, “we shouldn’t be seeing these violations because the company is under a consent order to fix the problem.” 

The latest violation is the second one for US Ecology this year. In April, the company received a violation, also for odors. 

This week, the Environmental Protection Agency met with residents as the start to a multi-year campaign to address air quality issues on the city’s east side. As a part of the project, the EPA and EGLE conducted compliance inspections at 18 sites in the area, including US Ecology. After public engagement, the two agencies will work with community stakeholder groups to “implement outreach and air pollution reduction projects.” US Ecology is just one of several facilities in Detroit with a track record of struggling to adhere to environmental laws. 

In the meantime, the Detroit Hamtramck Coalition for Advancing Healthy Environment has already established an informal meetup between residents and US Ecology to work on ways the company can “be a better neighbor,” Buttry said.

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.

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