KALAMAZOO, MI -- It’s not uncommon to find someone with a health issue in a neighborhood directly west of industrial properties in Kalamazoo.
There are residents with allergies, sinus issues, headaches and asthma.
A new state investigation confirms fears many in the neighborhood have: Levels of hydrogen sulfide in the air could be causing lasting health problems.
Neighboring plants on Kalamazoo’s Northside -- the Kalamazoo wastewater treatment plant and the Graphic Packaging International paper mill -- are to blame for the toxic and stinky gas.
The state report, released Monday, May 8, has been in progress for nearly three years.
The report says the environmental odors can cause adverse health effects including nausea, headache, insomnia, and eye, nose, and throat irritation. People with asthma and other respiratory conditions may be more sensitive to environmental odors.
The nasal irritation can last even after the person is no longer breathing the gas, the report said. It can cause issues for people with asthma, and the report recommends people go inside if the odor is strong and they have concerns.
‘They expect us to stop living our life?’
Residents, many frustrated after years of waiting for answers, want the issue fixed. The state report, which told people to stay inside if the odor is strong, rubbed some the wrong way.
“So they expect us to stop living our life?” Deann Winfield told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette after reading the state report findings. “I have places I have to go every day, for me and my son.”
Her son suffers from severe asthma and uses a machine to help him breathe.
Winfield questioned the recommendations, which advised people to use their medication and close their windows.
“These people are really crazy and really trying to kill us Black people off,” Winfield said. Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood is a predominately Black area.
“It smells like a dead skunk,” resident Patricia Whitmore said. “Or like urine or cow manure, all the time.”
The offensive smell is a telltale sign of hydrogen sulfide. The Environmental Protection Agency says hydrogen sulfide levels above 1.4 parts per billion can cause health problems with long-term exposure.
At a sensor at Gull Road and Riverview Drive, hydrogen sulfide levels averaged 19 parts per billion in 2020, and about 14 parts per billion in 2021. The monthly average hasn’t dropped below 4.6 parts per billion since it went live in September 2019.
Whitmore’s son has sinus issues, and she wonders if it’s because of the pollution. Her property is about a block from Graphic Packaging.
Her eyes water and her nose runs, she said.
“I’m sniffling a lot, and I don’t know if it’s from that,” she said prior to seeing the report, which says the levels can lead to persistent nasal irritation.
Former resident Brandi Crawford, who filed a lawsuit against Graphic Packaging, is relieved to see the report. But she doesn’t feel like there’s been justice.
“I’m horrified for the community,” Crawford told MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette on May 8.
She wants officials to provide mobile medical attention and relocation support for residents.
“For too long, corporations like Graphic Packaging have been getting millions of dollars in economic incentives from the state of Michigan and the city of Kalamazoo and have experienced zero accountability for the harmful impacts we residents have experienced,” Crawford said. “This is a public health emergency.”
Crawford is a member of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.
Graphic Packaging released its live toxic gas sensor data last week after the state mandated it do so.
In a statement, the company said it appreciates the work that went into the study, and it is focused on reviewing conclusions and recommendations.
“While we review the study, Graphic Packaging’s priority will always be the health and safety of our employees and the community. We have about 750 employees who work in our Kalamazoo facilities every day, and we take their health, along with the community’s health, seriously,” the company said, adding it’s committed to complying with environmental regulations.
The company said it has invested more than $8 million in recent years to reduce nuisance odors from the plant.
Resident Mario Williams said they need to do more. He has lived in the area near the properties for 17 years. His allergies have gotten progressively worse in that time.
“I’m taking Flonase, stuff like that, but nothing seems to work,” Williams said. “I take allergy medications every day, but it seems to get worse and worse.”
At night, he said he hears hissing and looks over to see a plume rising in the air from the Graphic Packaging factory.
“Who knows what that is?” Williams said.
Williams wants some kind of filtration system to be built to address the chemicals going into the air. More technology should have been installed to correct the issues when GPI’s $600 million expansion was completed last year, he said.
“I don’t believe Graphic Packaging is being held accountable,” Williams said. “They built this bigger plant for bigger production, and nothing’s being done.”
Kalamazoo resident David Benac, a member of the Environmental Concerns Committee, has smelled the odor on the west side of town since the expansion, even though he lives miles away.
He sees a disconnect between the findings and the recommendations in the state report.
There was a clear finding of a health hazard, Benac said, but the report recommends people stay indoors. Staying inside does not align with healthy living, he said.
“For community members with existing respiratory problems or sensitivity to odors,” the report states. “(The state health department) recommends staying indoors and avoiding outdoor exercise or physical exertion when an environmental odor is present.”
The report looks like it was written and then edited to minimize the findings, said Benac, who’s also a Western Michigan University history professor who teaches a course called “Pollution and Protest.”
The city of Kalamazoo and Kalamazoo County released a joint statement, when asked to comment.
“Kalamazoo remains steadfast in efforts to address the presence of gases and their odors in air readings throughout the city,” Kalamazoo Public Services Director James J. Baker said.
Jim Rutherford, Kalamazoo County’s health Officer, said officials are grateful people reported their concerns and trusted county leaders to escalate them. Resident concerns led to the state’s investigation.
Resident Tony Bell has smelled a bad odor for decades, but he is used to it.
That could be due to olfactory fatigue, a condition that results in a gradual loss of sensitivity to an odor after continuous exposure, as noted in the report.
He and others are asking what comes next.
“So what,” Bell asked. “Is the state going to do anything about it?”
According to the report, state and local agencies will continue in a similar manner as they have been.
“(The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services), (the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) and the city of Kalamazoo will work together to continue to use available authorities to continue to reduce hydrogen sulfide concentrations originating from identified sources,” MDHHS said in a statement to MLive/Kalamazoo Gazette.
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