Air monitor data manipulated in proposed Delray slag facility permit, advocates claim
This story is copublished with BridgeDetroit / Planet Detroit
Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration and a major cement manufacturer are manipulating air quality data to push through plans for a new facility that could increase toxic particulate matter pollution in Southwest Detroit to dangerous levels, the plan’s opponents charge.
Dearborn-based concrete producer Edward C. Levy Co. is planning a slag grinding facility near Zug Island in an area where state records show particulate matter levels are already on the cusp of violating federal health limits. The Levy facility would add more particulate matter and likely help push the area above the federal threshold, opponents say, but state environmental regulators are still poised to approve an air emissions permit.
The permit application claims the plant will not increase particulate matter levels beyond federal limits, but Levy did not use air quality data from Southwest Detroit in its calculation. Instead, it pulled data from an air quality monitor six miles away in Allen Park, where particulate matter levels are significantly lower.
An EGLE air quality monitoring analysis conducted by Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and provided to Bridge Detroit and Planet Detroit showed the six nearest air quality monitors to the grinding facility. Only data from the farthest air quality monitor, Allen Park, was considered in the permit. (Data provided by Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. Map and chart produced by Planet Detroit.)
That makes it appear as if the levels in Southwest Detroit will remain below the federal limit if the Levy plant is built, opponents say. But the company and regulators are ignoring data from six monitors closer to the site that show levels higher than in Allen Park.
Regulators “have allowed [Levy] to basically manipulate the data to get the result they want and haven’t pushed back,” said Nick Leonard, an attorney with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which discovered the issue and is pressing state regulators to reject the application.
“If EGLE wanted to deny the permit, it has numerous grounds to do so here, but rather than do that and look at this as an [environmental justice] issue, they have just ignored the data,” Leonard added.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) has recommended the Levy permit application for approval, though a public comment session is planned for 6 p.m. Wednesday and EGLE will continue taking comments until Oct. 23 before final approval is considered.
A Whitmer spokesperson referred questions about the permit to EGLE. In an email to BridgeDetroit, EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid defended the agency’s approach, which he noted included computer modeling for the project’s impact on Southwest Detroit, and downplayed the risk. Levy’s particulate matter pollution “is predicted to be extremely small and would not threaten” to push the area into violation of federal limits, McDiarmid added.
A representative for Levy did not respond to requests for comment.
Pitting road repairs against public health
The proposal comes amid a Whitmer administration road repair blitz that has fixed 20,000 miles of the state’s crumbling roads. The plant, planned for a five-acre former industrial site on Jefferson Avenue along the Detroit River, would take waste from nearby steel producers and process it for reuse in concrete.
It would be the first in the state to use a process that creates higher quality road material, which is now imported from Ontario, Canada, said Steve Waalkes, director of engineering with the Michigan Concrete Association, a trade group that represents industry players like Levy.
The state is requiring more of the higher grade material to be used and the product is in high demand, Waalkes said. But Ontario may stop producing it, and a potential supply chain disruption poses a threat to the governor’s signature initiative.
However, allowing a particulate matter-polluting plant to be built in a largely low income, minority neighborhood that already records Michigan’s highest particulate matter levels contradicts Whitmer’s environmental justice (EJ) ambitions, the plan’s opponents say. The governor has positioned herself as a champion of EJ causes and formed several advisory councils with EJ leaders.
The latest controversy is further evidence the Whitmer administration is only taking small steps on EJ issues, critics say, but will act to benefit a politically connected company that makes hundreds of thousands of dollars in contributions to candidates and PACs each cycle.
“Some of the obvious things that have bigger impacts that should be done are not happening, and it makes you mad every day,” said Simone Sagovac, project director with the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, a nonprofit pressuring EGLE to reject the permit.
Already, an oil refinery, wastewater treatment plant, freeway, heavy rail traffic, truck traffic, steel manufacturers, and hundreds of industrial businesses have emitted so much particulate matter in Southwest Detroit that the area in 2004 was in violation of EPA limits for the pollutant.
It took five years for the state to bring particulate matter levels beneath the EPA’s limit of 12 µg/m3, but levels in recent years at several monitors have been at or above that threshold.
Exposure to particulate matter is linked to heart disease, asthma, lung cancer and low birth weight, among other issues, and it is thought to be behind hundreds of premature deaths annually in metro Detroit. Sagovac said she is stunned that environmental regulators are willing to add to the problem.
“It’s hard to find the words because everyday I talk to people here who are suffering and struggling to breathe,” Sagovac said.
Ignoring air quality data?
When considering whether to issue a pollution permit, EGLE tallies area particulate matter emissions, then adds an applicants’ proposed emissions to determine whether the addition will cause the area to violate the federal 12 µg/m3 limit, Leonard said.
In this case, the answer is “plainly yes,” Leonard added.
Levy and EGLE seem to have circumvented that problem by ignoring existing nearby air quality data that shows levels already at or above the 12 ug/m3 threshold, Leonard said
Instead, Levy added its proposed emissions to the Allen Park total, despite the fact that there are six monitors within three miles of the site, including the closest that is 0.72 miles away. That monitor in 2021-2022 showed levels that were as high as 12.4 ug/m3 and have consistently increased throughout the last three years, Leonard said.
Allen Park, meanwhile, showed levels averaging 8.9 ug/m3 and 9 ug/m3 in 2021 and 2022, respectively. In its statement, EGLE said it used data from Allen Park to understand regional levels, and noted that Levy modeled to determine the impact of its pollution in Southwest Detroit.
However, the modeling left out some of the most significant particulate matter sources, like traffic, railways and fugitive dust, Leonard noted. EGLE’s McDiarmid said the agency does not have jurisdiction over such sources, but those sources are still considered by the EPA when determining if an area is in violation, so they cannot be ignored, Leonard said.
Regardless, there is no need to model for pollution levels if an air quality monitor can already provide the data, he added.
“There’s a monitor a half-mile away that tells you exactly how much particulate matter is in this community, so just use that data,” Leonard said. “And that data is telling you no more can be added – there is no more room.”
McDiarmid also said pollution levels are expected to be so low that it will not impact the closest monitor less than a mile away.
The area is likely to be in violation of particulate matter limits soon, regardless of what happens with Levy. The EPA is poised to lower its 12 µg/m3 particulate matter limits to about 9-10 µg/m3, which would put the region in violation, also called “non-attainment.” Gordie Howe International Bridge traffic will also spill into the area once the bridge is complete next year and increase levels.
“At its most nefarious, this is Levy trying to sneak in before the standard lowers, and before the area gets put in non-attainment for particulate matter,” Leonard said.
State law does not require permit applicants or regulators to use the closest air quality monitor data when calculating whether emissions will exceed federal health limits. The EPA advises agencies to use the closest air quality monitors, Leonard noted, and his law firm has successfully sued EGLE on this issue in the past. But it has also lost cases in which it has asked a judge to order the agency to use data from closer monitors.
If the area exceeds the EPA’s limit, the federal “nonattainment” designation would complicate and add costs to Levy’s plans.
The company would have to offset its particulate matter pollution increase by decreasing emissions at one of its plants elsewhere in the area, or by paying another business to reduce its emissions.
Leonard stressed that he is not opposed to Levy building the plant in an area less polluted with particulate matter. But the plant would have to be built somewhere in Southwest Detroit because the process requires molten steel waste and the site is close to steel producers, Michigan Concrete Association’s Waalkes said.
Critics say the situation is similar to a 2018 scenario in which EGLE and the Whitmer administration allowed automaker Stellantis to increase pollution at its east side Detroit plant if it reduced pollution at its Warren facility in a largely middle income, white neighborhood.
Sagovac said such situations highlight the need for the law to be changed to reduce threats to residents who live in the area.
“It’s really obvious that they should be looking at the monitors that better capture what the actual health impacts in our area are,” she said.
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