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New Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant Exceeds Toxic Air Pollution Standards

Last year, the $143 million Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant opened with the intention of converting human waste into usable fertilizer with “environmentally sound, proven technology,” according to the Great Lakes Water Authority. Instead, an analysis found that the facility exceeded the one-hour emission standards for sulfur dioxide more than 2,500 times between April of 2016 and February of 2017. In so doing, the plant has added harmful pollutants into an area that already has the dirtiest air in the Detroit area.

Throughout the nation, approximately 16,000 municipal wastewater treatment facilities work to turn waste into usable or non-harmful materials. But while the plant’s operations tried to address an important pollution issue, it ended up creating an even more severe one.

The problem is made worse by the fact that the surrounding neighborhoods are already considered to be in “non-attainment” of the Federal Clean Air Act’s air quality standards for sulfur dioxide by the EPA. And in lieu of an immediate shutdown by the state Department of Environmental Quality, the agency and facility operators have until January 1, 2018 to resolve the issues that led to its noncompliance. Until that time, Detroit residents have no choice but to breathe in these toxic fumes.

Elizabeth Milton, an advocate for Detroit Alliance for Asthma Awareness, told The Detroit Free Press that a two-year wait for resolution is unacceptable.

“They are taking the risk with our lives, and that I cannot bear — especially in a community that is overburdened with toxic pollutants,” said Milton. “The residents of this area cannot bear one more excessive polluter.”

But not everyone shares Milton’s general panic. Suzanne Coffey, the interim chief operating officer for wastewater with the Great Lakes Water Authority, referred to the high emission levels and their efforts to get them where they should be a “natural part” of ironing out the kinks with any large facility.

“We are going through a typical performance testing period,” she explained to The Detroit Free Press, adding, “We are not the only discharger of SO2 in the area … We’re not feeling like this is a significant environmental impact.”

But in its analysis of monitoring data for the plant, The Detroit Free Press noted:

“Residents in the area face a polluting gauntlet of steel mills, coal-fired power plants, a major garbage incinerator and factories — and it shows in their respiratory health. Detroit’s hospitalization rate for asthma is more than three times the rate for Michigan as a whole, according to the state Department of Health and Human Services. Short-term exposures to sulfur dioxide can harm the human respiratory system and make breathing difficult, according to the [U.S.] EPA.”

Adding insult to injury is the fact that the facility is privately owned. In other words, the company is turning a profit off of waste products obtained by a publicly funded treatment plant.

“Why MDEQ and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services are not doing all that they can to protect these vulnerable communities, these disenfranchised communities, these African-American communities, I’m not sure,” says Milton.

According to Coffey, the New England Fertilizer Company is currently working on bringing the plant’s sulfur dioxide emissions down to acceptable levels. But since the consent order allows them to take their time with a fix, Detroit residents may have to take their own protective measures — or get used to living the life of an asthmatic.

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