KALAMAZOO, MI -- The county housing director said she will not recommend funding projects around the Graphic Packaging International factory and other sites, due to concerns about possible health issues associated with environmental hazards.
Officials are working to award about $7 million annually to housing projects that seek grant funding from the “Housing for All” millage Kalamazoo voters approved in 2020 to help address homelessness and overall housing affordability in county.
Kalamazoo County Housing Director Mary Balkema made her funding comments during an interview focused on environmental issues played on Public Media Network, and responded to questions from MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette on May 10.
Balkema has recommended housing projects, and commissioners have approved funding for them for the first round of applicants this year.
“We do not want to put families or people next to places that are environmentally toxic,” Balkema said in the PMN interview on April 22. “We know we have Superfund sites; we know we have toxicity, we also, near Graphic Packaging, maybe its anecdotal but maybe it’s not, we have a family whose kid has a ‘trach’ and is very much suffering.
“I think where we see those pockets, I cannot in good faith recommend any housing near there. Maybe it needs to be green space until the land or that area heals from all the toxins,” Balkema said.
The company responded to Balkema’ s comments, saying, “To be clear, Graphic Packaging is unaware of any credible information that our operations are linked to toxic health impacts.”
DeAnn Winfield and her daughter, Shaprace, and son, Deandre Jones, live within site of the GPI factory and near the city’s wastewater treatment plant. They all have asthma and have reported a strong odor they believe is coming from GPI that comes in through their windows.
Winfield said her other daughter died of asthma and Jones is on a machine to help him breathe because of his asthma.
They have reported their troubled breathing to the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), along with the increased odor and noise from the plant.
People in a census tract in the area of the factory and the city’s wastewater plant have a higher-than-average rate of asthma cases, and there is a 14-year life expectancy gap in that area compared to the highest life expectancy in the county.
An EGLE air compliance inspector responded to the odor complaint at GPI Wednesday morning, EGLE Spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said. He smelled “faint wet paper odors,” but determined it did not rise to a level of a Rule 901 odor violation, she said.
The sprawling GPI paper mill is located next to residential properties in a predominantly Black neighborhood.
In December 2019, a previous Kalamazoo City Commission voted to amend and enlarge an industrial district for the factory’s $600 million expansion. City commissioners also voted to extend tax abatements for the company twice in the past two years, most recently in October 2021, one month before the current commission took office.
“Your zip code should not be a factor in the social determents of health. But we know in our region it is,” Balkema told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette.
The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services is investigating the possibility of health effects from long-term exposures to a toxic gas that has been found in the residential neighborhood. The investigation focuses on hydrogen sulfide, which has been found coming from the GPI factory and from city infrastructure.
Investigators said short-term exposure to the levels of gas found is not believed to be harmful, and now they are investigating possible effects of longer exposures.
The county board has many goals as it relates to the housing millage, Balkema said, and her comments were about her recommendations on how commissioners should allocate housing millage money.
“We do not want to place folks in an area that has a cumulative burden of multiple environmental exposures,” she said.
She mentioned other environmental issues that would cause her not to recommend projects, such as “plumes,” or Superfund sites, in known locations.
To that end, she said, the county is working to disperse affordable housing throughout the county.
GPI denied the allegations suggested by Balkema’s statement, and said it is difficult to respond directly to the comments because the company was only briefly mentioned in the interview.
When it comes to housing, Graphic Packaging said it encourages communities to be thoughtful and is in favor of “common sense” zoning practices.
“Graphic Packaging understands that environmental justice is an important issue of concern in many communities, including Kalamazoo, and we would be more than happy to meet with any public officials who have questions and concerns about our operations,” the company said.
“Graphic Packaging’s first priority continues to be the health and safety of our employees and the community. We have about 650 employees who work in our facility every day and we take their health, along with the community’s health, seriously. Graphic Packaging has spent more than $4 million in recent years on efforts to reduce nuisance odors and is committed to meeting all state and local air and environmental regulations.”
Brandi Crawford-Johnson, a former resident who suffers from asthma and moved away from her home that was near the factory, believes GPI is responsible for health issues including burning eyes and lungs and that the air quality worsened her asthma.
She filed a lawsuit against GPI and civil rights complaints against the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE), and the city of Kalamazoo, as part of the effort.
“After fighting for environmental justice for two years for the Northside, it made me feel relieved to hear Mary Balkema acknowledge the injustice and not allow any more housing near GPI,” Crawford-Johnson said. “I really hope the rest of Kalamazoo leaders step up and help Northsiders get the help they deserve.”
Crawford-Johnson has spoken up about air quality for years, including when she presented her concerns to the city’s Environmental Concerns Committee in 2018.
A 2009 report created by an engineering firm for the city of Kalamazoo also describes the high levels of hydrogen sulfide, a toxic gas, found coming from city wastewater infrastructure.
Cejuwon Mcferrin, 28, lives about seven blocks west of GPI. He is another plaintiff in the lawsuit against GPI.
He has had asthma since birth and other family members and friends have lung issues, he said.
“People in my neighborhood aren’t educated,” Mcferrin said. “We grew up in it and we never questioned it. There’s always been a smell down here, there’s always been a residue on the cars.”
He said people born into it may not recognize it as abnormal.
“How can you complain if you don’t know?” he said.
City of Kalamazoo Public Information Officer Jay Shatara said the current city administration and city commission have taken “unprecedented steps” to improve the wastewater treatment plant’s operations, including new methods to protect water and air. He responded to questions MLive sent to Mayor David Anderson and the city manager’s office.
“Results have not yet been released for the long-term health study currently being conducted by the State of Michigan. We, along with the rest of the community, are awaiting these facts and findings,” Shatara said.
“The city of Kalamazoo and the county desire to see that everyone has a place to live that is safe and affordable, and the city will continue its partnership with the county to achieve these goals for our citizens,” Shatara said.
Mayor David Anderson told MLive in October that one explanation for why a health study was not initiated sooner is related to the recognition of things that at one time were not considered harmful, or people didn’t think about, and now are considered harmful.
“It was a growing awareness, a growing capacity, growing and improving technology ... increased sensitivity, all of those things kind of coming together,” Anderson told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette in October.
The city continues to study the gas, often referring to it as an “odor” issue. A June 2020 engineering report on industrial odor near a Kalamazoo manufacturer recommended placing a cap on the clarifier that processes wastewater coming from the sprawling factory. But the clarifier was never capped, the company told MLive in January 2022.
Balkema, who served as a city commissioner from 2001 to 2007 and as county treasurer from 2007 to 2020, was recently appointed as a new member of the city of Kalamazoo’s Foundation for Excellence. She was hired as housing director in 2021.