To: Detroit/Seattle Workers' Voice mailing list
April 10, 2019
RE: At the MDEQ hearing over bringingin more toxic waste to Detroit

Big crowd demands no expansion of
toxic waste facility in Detroit

By Pete Brown, Detroit Workers' Voice

On March 28th hundreds of people crowded a meeting room in Hamtramck, Michigan to demand a stop to the expansion of the misnamed U.S. Ecology corporation. People in the area around the plant, on the border of Hamtramck and Detroit, were mobilized for the event largely by the grassroots Coalition to Stop the Expansion of U.S. Ecology. The Coalition was formed in 2015 when U.S. Ecology announced plans to expand its processing of industrial waste tenfold. People in the area, who live in one of the most polluted industrial areas in the U.S., were aroused and began organizing against the expansion. The Coalition has been building protests since then, trying to get the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) to deny the company’s request for a permit to expand. The Coalition has managed to delay approval of the permit for four years, but recently MDEQ announced plans to approve the permit by mid-April. The Coalition then demanded a final public hearing to allow the local community to voice their concerns about the expansion. Federal rules require that public notice must be given in the language of local residents, and this was never done, so to avoid accusations of discrimination MDEQ agreed to one last hearing before they approve the permit.

Members of the Coalition then went to work organizing the local community, especially immigrants from Yemen and Bangladesh. These communities had previously tried to express their opposition to U.S. Ecology, but their petitions had been ignored by MDEQ. Now the Coalition worked to mobilize these people in a forceful protest. Different forms of literature were produced and distributed at community events including festivals, markets, and services at local mosques. The Coalition put together a Powerpoint presentation on problems with U.S. Ecology, and this was shown at mosques and other meeting places in the community. The Powerpoint and literature were all written in three languages – English, Arabic and Bengali. Organizing meetings were held at local mosques where Coalition members gave presentations and stressed a few important talking points. These points concentrated the Coalition’s main objections to U.S. Ecology and prepared people to speak at MDEQ’s public hearing.

The hearing on March 28th was a big success for the Coalition and showed the value of their organizing work. About 500 people showed up to voice their concerns, and 100 of those got a chance to speak before time ran out. Every single person who spoke objected to U.S. Ecology getting a permit to expand, and some called for the company to be entirely shut down. People largely voiced the talking points prepared by the Coalition, which included:

1. U.S. Ecology does not operate safely or legally. They had 150 violations of MDEQ rules between 2010 and 2016, dumping excessive amounts of poison into the water.

2. U.S. Ecology has been granted waivers on testing the soil and groundwater for years. These waivers must end. We have the right to know what is in the soil and groundwater. Any permit to expand must be denied until then.

3. Trucks entering and leaving the plant spew cancer-causing diesel fumes in the community and create the opportunity for toxic spills. Ten thousand people live within one mile of the plant; 65% of these are people of color, and 80% are low-income. This is environmental racism!

4. The health of residents in this county is the worst of all counties in Michigan. We have higher rates of asthma, infant mortality, low birth-weight babies and premature death. This has everything to do with the environment we live in. Enough is enough! Stop dumping toxins in this county!

Many people who spoke mentioned the Flint water crisis, when MDEQ officials ignored community complaints for years. Some MDEQ officials are now facing serious felony charges as a result. Other disasters approved by MDEQ were also mentioned: their approval of the Detroit incinerator, which spewed toxic fumes into the air for decades; and their approval of fracking in Michigan and injection wells for disposing of frack waste. It was clear that the local community is aroused and educated about environmental dangers and MDEQ’s lax record of regulating corporations. Speakers ranged in age from young schoolboys to elderly imams who spoke in Arabic. Local community leaders translated into English for speakers of Arabic and Bengali.

Meanwhile the public hearing was a disaster for MDEQ. Their Powerpoint presentation designed to show “balanced” viewpoints did not work at all. And their promised translation services also did not function. Their main speaker could not be understood, as their loudspeaker equipment did not work well. The public hearing was in danger of collapsing altogether early on, as 500 people were muttering about how badly organized MDEQ was. Finally MDEQ officials gave up on their presentations and turned over the meeting to the local community for their comments.

At this point MDEQ is still threatening to approve U.S. Ecology’s permit to expand, but the local community is aroused on the subject and clearly opposed. Some local politicians have jumped in to show their opposition to the plant’s expansion, and the Coalition is continuing its organizing work. The March 28th hearing shows the results of concentrated years-long work.

It also shows the need to build a working-class environmental movement as an alternative to the neglectful and uncaring state officialdom. In informal discussions MDEQ officials faced with arguments against U.S. Ecology will plead “our hands are tied.” They say they are not allowed to deny permits and they don’t have the resources to test the soil, groundwater, and health of residents. This shows the limitations of the present state structure and its support for capitalist corporations at the expense of people’s health. This “Department of Environmental Quality” is a joke that has nothing to do with environmental quality, its sole purpose being to support corporate polluting, fracking, frack waste disposal, etc. State agencies have blinders put on them, but this doesn’t blind ordinary people to environmental dangers. Properly organized and aroused, working class people can demand regulation of industry that serves the interests of the community at large instead of profiteering corporations. []

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Posted on May 6, 2019
Some typos have been corrected.