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Sides dig in for hazardous waste landfill siting battle

Mark Thompson-Kolar
From The Michigan Journalist

As a child, Charles Smith enjoyed roaming the swampy woodlands and hilly fields east of his family's 258-acre dairy farm.

"We used to call it 'frog farm' for all the frogs that chirp when it rains," said the stocky farmer, whose family has owned the farm near Milan, Mich., since 1854.

Today when Smith, 45, drives his pickup truck down the damp dirt roads near his home, he still hears the frogs and sees the ditches, willow trees and cornfields of his childhood. But he also sees the orange shafts of toxic-chemical test wells jutting waist-high from the soaked soil.

Currently home to a small, toxin-leaking landfill, the frog farm in rural Augusta Township may become the site for America 's second largest commercial hazardous waste landfill and Michigan's first commercial hazardous waste incinerator.

The proposed $45 million project, a brainchild of Ypsilanti-based waste conglomerate Envotech Management Services, would cover almost 3 square miles and handle 20 million to 25 million yards of hazardous waste. It would bring benefits to the area in 150 new jobs and $1 million per year in property taxes, according to company spokesperson George Schutte.


Although formal plans have not yet been unveiled, the project already has met stiff local resistance. Hundreds of residents, 19 local governments, 14 United Auto Workers Local chapters, two local environmental groups and others have opposed the project through rallies, anti-waste ordinances and a pending federal lawsuit.

The suit, brought by the Augusta Township Board of Commissioners, would force Envotech to clean up the old 27-acre sanitary landfill, which is listed among the state's worst toxic contamination sites, before any new construction begins.

The landfill was managed during the mid-1970s by Envotech affiliates Wayne Disposal and Michigan Disposal. It still leaks toxins into groundwater 11 years after it was closed, said Gary Klepper, manager of the Michigan Department of Natural Resources' Jackson office.

The anti-waste ordinances, also created by the Augusta board, regulate three distinct areas: waste facility construction details such as landscaping, lighting and seepage; air quality, including emission standards; and on-site safety and waste-type restrictions.

The ordinances mimic federal Environmental Protection Agency and MDNR regulations, said Planning Committee Chair Jim Chestnut. "(But) we have to have something on the books to make sure the law is enforced within the township itself."

Without the laws, the township would rely on the MDNR and the EPA to enforce regulations.

Augusta residents voted two years ago by a 9-1 margin to raise their own property taxes two years ago to raise funds for the resistance. The l-mill increase generates an extra $50,000 a year for five years.

The township government already has spent over $100,000 on legal fees to fight the facility.

Hans Posselt, a township trustee and environmental scientist, said the protest has been heated because the proposed site—which carries a United States Department of Agriculture "prime farmland" classification, sits atop Lake Erie's aquifer and contains 150 acres of wetlands—is not environmentally fit to handle hazardous wastes.

"It is one of the wettest parts of Washtenaw County," said Posselt, who holds a Ph.D. from the University of Michigan. "If you build a hazardous waste facility and you have a spill, the entire ecological system here will be destroyed."

The site's closeness to populated areas also makes it an unreasonable choice, he said. The old frog farm area lies a half mile from a 1,300-inmate federal prison; two miles from the City of Milan (population 3,300) and 12 miles from Ann Arbor (population 110,000).

Fallout from incinerators travels about 20 miles.

Smith, a township ordinance officer from 1971 to 1973 and now the township's supervisor, said residents do not trust Envotech because its affiliates mishandled the old dump.

"We got fooled once with the old landfill," said Smith, in a low voice. "We don't plan to get fooled again."

But the new facility would be much safer than past landfills, said Envotech's Schutte. "The approach we're selecting is very high-tech—proven things that, put together, can create a safe project. If we make a $50 million investment in this project we don 't want to see it closed."

State control

Despite efforts on both sides, however, neither Envotech nor the community has power to control the 1,800-acre facility's destiny. The state gives control of hazardous waste siting to an autonomous, governor-appointed Siting Review Board under a hazardous waste statute, Act 64.

The nine members o f the SRB, whom voters do not elect, hold unappealable power to place hazardous waste facilities within the state.

Under Act 64, a company requesting a hazardous waste site permit submits a several hundred-page plan to the MDNR along with a fee that covers state expenses for the process.

Envotech must submit separate plans for the incinerator and landfill when it applies for licenses this summer, said Schutte.

The plan must contain maps, test monitoring data and building plans. It also must disclose environmental legal records of the facility's five largest shareholders and three primary operators, as well of the owning company. The MDNR can deny its approval for criminal violations of state, federal, or Canadian environmental laws.

"We've only had one company that's ever gotten a disclosure statement to us and met all the requirements necessary to get a site permit since 1987," said MDNR environmental engineer Steve Sliver, who helped the SRB process a chemical waste treatment plant application last year.

Environmental engineers and scientists evaluate the site plans to ensure they meet state air and water quality regulations, structural specifications, and wetlands preservation requirements.

Augusta residents have their fingers crossed that the area's nearly 150 acres of state wetland will stop the siting. Envotech has said it will relocate the wetlands, a plan not specifically allowed in the act.

"The company is aware they can't build in a wetland. We've told them that several times," said MDNR engineer Kathleen Clancy. But she denied that the land's wetlands would preclude siting there.

If the MDNR engineers rejects the plan, the company can make modifications and reapply. But if the plan meets approval, the MDNR chooses potential siting board members, who must be approved by the governor, said Sliver. The MDNR also must supply technical support assistance during the process.

The board must be led by a non-voting attorney who conducts public and formal testimony hearings.

Two members come from the locality of the proposed site—one chosen by the municipality involved and one by the county's board of commissioners.

Three technical members come from state universities: a toxicologist, a chemical engineer and a geologist.

Other members include a manufacturing industry representative, two persons from the general public and one from a municipality similar to the one proposed for siting.

The SRB holds several public hearings over about 400 days. It receives public comment and sworn testimony over disputed technical and environmental information, said Sliver. It also can force negotiations between the municipality and facility owner.

"There's every opportunity for the public to come and make its complaints known to the board.

It isn't designed to eliminate the NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) concern—that's always going to be there," Sliver said. "If the public comes in and gives the board a bunch of good information, the Board will have a lot of good information to deny a permit application."

After making its decision, though, the board's ruling is unappealable, said Sliver. Its authority supersedes any local ordinances forbidding waste facilities. "There's no way to overrule the board, unless you want to go to court," Sliver said.


The review board process has been used seven times since its initiation in 1981 . Four permits were granted, three denied.

"Our act is more stringent than the federal act," said Sliver. "It's the fairest way of siting new facilities in the state."

Kimberly Dunbar, chair of the Milan-based Michigan Citizens Against Toxic Substances (MCATS), disagreed.

"This is superseding a community's right to self-determination," she said. "Zoning and land use planning—all of that is swept away in the interests of wealthy, private corporations. I see the site review board process as a way to offload the responsibility for an individual's decision.

If ten years down the road (a site) is a total disaster, who's responsible?"

Posselt said he dislikes the review board process because it forces the municipality, which has no access to the waste company's site itself, to pay for expensive scientific testing and legal assistance. Such expenses easily could surpass $100,000 during the SRB hearings, he said .

If a plan is rejected, a company can make changes and reapply, but if it is accepted, the community has no appeal, he said.

Schutte said the review board process is a necessity that has benefits. "Any kind of environmental facility has to have a regulatory agency involved in the issuance of an operating license. We feel we will be able to demonstrate to the Site Review Board the safety of our facility."

Augusta residents hope the MDNR rejects the proposed site because of wetlands there. They also hope their court case will yield an environmental conviction for Envotech, marring its required disclosure statement, said Smith. But should the MDNR and federal courts rule against the township's wishes on these issues, the community will depend completely on a siting board's decision.

"I really find the whole thing unbelievable," said Dunbar, with a sigh. "You think you're living in a democratic society and you find out you're really not."

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