Commentary – The Disposal of Public Opinion

The production of toxic waste has been an unwanted by-product ofthe Industrial Revolution. In the Great Lakes region, a number offacilities have become disposal sites for this waste. One such proposedfacility, in Romulus, Michigan, and the method of disposalthey want to use, has attracted the attention of local environmentalistswho say that it is neither needed nor wanted. Great Lakes RadioConsortium commentator Suzanne Elston says nobody’slistening to their voices of discontent:


The production of toxic waste has been an unwanted by-product of the
Industrial Revolution. In the Great Lakes Region, a number of
facilities have become disposal sites for this waste. One such
proposed facility, in Romulus, Michigan, and the method of disposal
they want to use, has attracted the attention of local
environmentalists who say that it is neither needed nor wanted. Great
Lakes Radio Consortium commentator Suzanne Elston says nobody’s
listening to their voices of discontent.

The disposal method is called deep well injection. Dig a well, 4,000
feet below the surface, far below any aquifers, and fill it hazardous
waste. It seems like a simple way to get rid of a whole bunch of
stuff that nobody wants. The problem is that similar facilities in
other parts of the country have had problems – big problems. So many
folks in Romulus have decided that they don’t want this kind of
facility opening up in their community.

In light of this very vocal opposition, I was surprised to hear that
the facility was going to go ahead anyway. So I called the press
secretary for the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. He
said that I hadn’t heard wrong. The DEQ had already given its draft
approval. Barring any meaningful objections, the plan would go ahead.

But he and his department seem to be missing something here. There
have been meaningful objections, and not just from the residents.
Some state officials aren’t too happy either. Last year, the State
Review Board cited a whole pile of reasons that the facility
shouldn’t be approved. Apparently the well would be located just
1,500 feet from Detroit Metropolitan airport, and only 15 feet from
interstate 94 – one the busiest highways in Michigan. The site is
expected to receive 400,000 gallons of chemicals and hazardous waste
every day that will be trucked off I-94 and driven through the second
busiest intersection in Wayne County. Those concerns didn’t stop the
Department of Environmental Quality.

The official that I spoke to said that they had already made their
decision to approve the well, but to follow the law, they had to go
ahead with public hearings. I was told quite frankly that this is not
an issue of public opinion. If an application meets all the statutory
and technical requirements, then it will be allowed. The policy is
the applicant has rights, too and that an angry public doesn’t matter.

The people who are fighting the dump have a very different take on
things. The problem, they will tell you, isn’t when everything goes
according to the state-approved diagrams. It’s when some goes wrong –
like it did in Winona, Texas. People there have been getting sick and
dying for years. Some of them are convinced that their health
problems can be blamed on an injection well facility very similar to
the one proposed for Romulus. They don’t think that it’s worth the
risk to build another facility like the one in Winona. So despite
their pain and suffering, they’ve been trying to help the people of
Romulus stop the Michigan facility from being built.

While it’s unlikely that the state will withdraw its approval at this
point, the good people of Romulus have one last hope. The federal EPA
still has to approve the application to inject. But activists say
that the EPA was one the company’s biggest customers in Winona.
Apparently the EPA was using the facility to dispose of toxic waste
from other government agencies. The activists say it’s unlikely that
the EPA won’t approve the Romulus site.

The irony of all this is that the site isn’t even needed. Activists
say existing hazardous waste sites in Michigan are only operating at
about 25 percent of their capacity. They’re concerned that in order
to make up the difference, Michigan will be importing toxic waste
from Canada and other parts of the United States. Why the state would
go ahead and approve it anyway makes no sense whatsoever. But this
apparently isn’t about common sense. Nor is it about the will of the
people, or the democratic process. It’s about greed. Plain and simple.