The world’s largest automaker is doing something it’s never done before. General Motors is recruiting people who live near its assembly plants to help the company find ways to pollute less. But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports, some environmentalists say GM’s efforts are missing the point:
The world’s largest automaker is doing something it’s never done before. General Motors is
recruiting people who live near its assembly plants to help the company find ways to pollute less.
But as the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports, some environmentalists say GM’s
efforts are missing the point.
The city of Lansing, Michigan is the car Capital of North America, producing nearly a
half-a-million Pontiacs, Oldsmobiles, Chevrolets and Cadillacs every year. Later this year,
General Motors adds another car to its Lansing lineup – a brand-new Chevy roadster. But it
almost didn’t happen.
Environmentalists threatened legal action to block production because they weren’t satisfied with
the factory’s air pollution controls.
Steve Tomaszewski is General Motors’ Lansing environmental manager.
“People were concerned, everyone was concerned. There was a breakdown of communications,
on all parties.”
The disagreement was over air pollution from one of GM’s plants. Those emissions were due to
nearly double under a new state air quality permit.
Some Lansing residents and two state environmental groups threatened to appeal that new permit
if GM didn’t agree to use better pollution controls. The two sides made their cases in the local
papers and eventually struck a deal.
Again, GM’s Steve Tomaszewski.
“We’ve come a long way, a long way, from where we started in the process. You know, we sit
down and we know more about people’s families other than just concentrating, on you know, the
industrial odor issues, which is great.”
General Motors agreed to join a new Air Quality Task Force. It’s made up of GM engineers,
environmental officials and people who live near the plants. GM also brought in an odor expert to
train the group to sniff out emissions from the plants’ paint shops. This “odor patrol” then files
reports to a new Web site.
Marci Alling is part of the group.
“They kind of calibrated our noses, that’s about the best way to describe it to kind of get us all
where we are more or less reporting the same levels of odor.”
Alling and her husband have lived near GM factories for 10 years. Often, whether they spend
time in their backyard depends on which way the wind blows. In certain weather conditions,
typically on hot, sticky days, a paint-like smell from the plants drifts through their neighborhood.
They’ve wondered whether the odors are making them sick.
State officials say the odors might be annoying, but recent studies found people who live near the
plants are not at a greater risk of cancer or other illnesses.
GM’s Steve Tomaszewski says the odor patrol will help the automaker better monitor emissions.
“We know we can’t be completely odor free. We strive to do our best. But this information, what
we’ll do is be able to go back and it’s more real time. You’re able to link it to the day and the time,
and we’re able to go back into the process to see what’s happening.”
But environmental groups say General Motors should be doing more to reduce pollution in the
first place, instead of tracking emissions after they become a problem.
James Clift of the Michigan Environmental Council says technology is available to make the
painting process cleaner. But he claims GM isn’t using it.
“If what you need is pollution control equipment and it’s not there, the odors may continue. We
might know better what they are, but if the permit doesn’t require them, it doesn’t matter. Now,
the department always has the ability to bring what they call an odor violation against General
Motors. In my mind, they’ve received lots of complaints over the years, but the DEQ has never
acted and actually issued a violation on odors.”
But the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality says it has issued odor violations against
General Motors. GM was ordered to raise its smokestacks in Lansing a couple of years ago
because of a violation. And GM says it recently spent 4-million-dollars on new painting
technology that greatly cuts down on pollution.
Now, General Motors is counting on its neighbors and their noses to help the company improve
air quality near its factories. GM says the project could lead to better pollution controls at plants
throughout the country, including more than 40 in the Great Lakes region.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.