HIGHLAND PARK, Mich., March 23, 2012 — /PRNewswire-iReach/ — News from CleanupChromeCraft.org.
During a packed community meeting at Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church in Highland Park, Michigan, neighborhood residents and former workers told officials from Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) about chemical spills and safety issues at Chrome Craft, an abandoned auto parts plant owned by Illinois billionaire Shahid Khan.
“Everyone is entitled to a good quality of life,” said Shareef El-Mubarak, president of the Masjid Al-Nur Mosque and Community Center, located just a few blocks from the closed Chrome Craft plant on Midland Street in Highland Park. “I want to know if something is there, what kind of effect it could have on residents, and any long-term impacts to the children who have played here for years.”
The facility, which put chrome on bumpers for auto manufacturers, was cited 39 times for violating the federal law regulating disposal of hazardous waste between 1993 and 2009. Former workers and neighborhood residents called on DEQ to begin immediate testing of soil and water surrounding the plant.
Based on testimony gathered so far, DEQ agrees that testing is necessary, said Paul Owens, supervisor of the Southeastern Michigan district office of the Department’s remediation division. DEQ will begin additional interviews with workers and residents within the next two weeks, he said during tonight’s meeting. DEQ will then develop a plan for soil and water testing and present it to workers, residents and Chrome Craft officials.
Hexavalent chromium, a known carcinogen, was one of the chemicals used at Chrome Craft. A lawsuit over the illegal disposal of this chemical was the subject of the Oscar-winning film Erin Brockovich.
“Spills inside the plant and standing pools of chemicals were a near everyday experience,” said Mike Miley, a member of UAW Local 174 who worked at ChromeCraft for 20 years. “But there were also spills of chemicals outside the plant. In the back of the plant was an alley that had spills probably twice a week.”
Patricia Pitts, who grew up in a house across that same alley, also spoke during tonight’s meeting. Together with her mother and aunt, they raised seven children in that house.
“When I was a child growing up, the main place children played was in the alley – we would play kickball, baseball, and jump rope back there,” said Pitts. “I know of eight people who lived on the street facing that alley who have had cancer.”
“We need testing of the soil and water around this facility, and we need it now,” said D. Alexander Bullock, pastor of Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church. “This plant is owned by one of the richest men in the world; he shouldn’t leave families behind with this kind of uncertainty about their health and well-being.”
The Chrome Craft plant, idled in 2009, is a unit of Flex-N-Gate, an auto parts manufacturer owned by Shahid Khan. Forbes, which lists Khan as one of the world’s newest billionaires, estimates his net worth at $2.5 billion. He is also the owner of the NFL Jacksonville Jaguars.
Highland Park is one of the most economically challenged communities in the state of Michigan, with a median household income of just $18,700. Thirty percent of households earn less than $10,000 annually.
“You can’t find a better example of why environmental justice is a top priority for our union,” said UAW Vice President Cindy Estrada, who directs the UAW’s Independents, Parts and Suppliers (IPS) Department. “The people who worked at this plant and the residents who live near it deserve to know exactly what they are facing. And if we find dangerous chemicals here, they deserve the same kind of fast, thorough clean-up Shahid Khan would insist on if the problem was in his own backyard.”
More information, including testimony from workers and residents, is available at www.CleanUpChromeCraft.org. Participating labor and community organizations include: Green Door Initiative; Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church; NAACP- Highland Park Branch; NAACP – Detroit Branch; International Union, UAW; Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice; Coalition of Black Trade Unionists – Detroit Chapter; Community Action and Response Against Toxics; Masjid Al-Nur Mosque; Sierra Club, Detroit Office.
Media Contact: Roger Kerson, CleanUpChromecraft.org, 734.929.2875, email@example.com
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Former workers at a shuttered plant in Highland Park are charging that the plant likely contaminated an adjacent neighborhood and possibly some urban farms in the area with a highly toxic carcinogen.
The major hazard is hexavalent chromium — the same substance that contaminated tiny Hinckley, Calif., in an environmental case Erin Brockovich made famous. It was used to coat bumpers at the plant.
The plant, called Chrome Craft, has been cited over the past 20 years for 39 violations of city, state and federal laws regarding its discharges into Detroit sewers, its lack of a permit to store hazardous waste, improper storage of waste and failure to train workers, according to documents obtained by the UAW under the Freedom of Information Act. The NAACP, the UAW, environmental groups and workers are asking the state’s Department of Environmental Quality to investigate.
The plant is owned by Flex-N-Gate, a company owned by Shahid Khan, an Illinois businessman who hopes to win approval this week from NFL owners to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars. The company denied knowledge of any leaks or violations.
Saad Bolos, 56, of Madison Heights worked at the plant for 17 years and described incidents of leaks to the Free Press, including a rooftop pipe that spilled what he believed was chromium onto snow in an alley that backs up to houses. “It was everywhere,” he said.
It could be the first test of the DEQ’s environmental justice policy, which pays special attention to hazards in poor areas.
On Pilgrim Street, which runs behind the Chrome Craft plant in Highland Park, a yellow sign warns: “Children at play.”
At least two homes on the street, whose backyards all face the plant, have swing sets. At one house, a gate stands open to the tiny alley. At others, there is no fence.
Former workers at the plant say that spills they witnessed likely contaminated the alley, and possibly the homes nearby.
Antwine Riggs said he worked at the plant for 13 years until it closed in 2009 and saw, three to four times a week, waste sludge from the operation spill off a conveyor onto the ground near the alley. Riggs said the equipment that moved the sludge broke often. Rain would wash the material off-site.
Pastor D. Alexander Bullock, whose church is near the plant, said he’s concerned about the possibility that contamination with hexavalent chromium has affected soil in a wider area.
“There is an urban farm movement starting here, and this could be toxic to the land,” he said. His church, Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, has one of those farms. Bullock, also president of the Highland Park NAACP, said he’s concerned about the health of both workers and residents.
At least six former workers have made allegations to the UAW, which represents workers at the closed plant. The UAW has examined dozens of documents over the past few months, said Chris Schwartz, a researcher with the union. A search of records found no evidence that there were ever cleanups at or near the site, he said.
On Friday, workers, the Highland Park and Detroit branches of the NAACP, and environmental leaders sent a letter to the state Department of Environmental Quality detailing problems at the plant and asking for inspections, and, if necessary, a cleanup.
“Our review of regulatory documents, as well as interviews with former employees, reveals a consistent pattern of environmental and safety problems at the plant, including releases of hazardous waste into the environment,” the letter said in part.
A spokesman for the DEQ said Monday that the agency would send a team to the site to investigate.
“We will take appropriate response actions as necessary to protect the public health,” spokesman Brad Wurfel said.
A former worker and safety committee chair at the plant, Saad Bolos, said workers raised issues about the safety of chemicals inside and outside the plant for many years. “We tried, but we couldn’t accomplish a lot,” he said. Employees feared that if they pushed too hard, the plant might close, he said.
The plant was closed about two years ago and its equipment moved out. It sits idle now, with a security guard on duty.
The letter hand-delivered to DEQ also alleges that the company’s failure to formally close the plant, instead listing it as idled, was a way to avoid a post-closure inspection by DEQ, which could turn up problems requiring a cleanup.
In a statement Monday, the plant’s owner, Flex-N-Gate, said: “We’ve immediately and fully investigated this claim. Flex-N-Gate Group has received no communication from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, nor anyone else (including any civic leader) suggesting any environmental law violation at the Chrome Craft idled plant in Highland Park, including alleged leaks. Chrome Craft complies with all Michigan and federal environmental laws, including workers’ health and safety and protection of the public.”
On Wednesday, NFL owners are expected to vote on whether to allow Shahid Khan, Flex-N-Gate’s owner, to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars team in Florida for $760 million. Khan, with a distinctive handlebar moustache, lives in Urbana, Ill., where he is known as a businessman and philanthropist who has helped fund academic programs on aging and health, according to recent news profiles related to the football purchase. The company took in $3 billion in revenue this year, according to Forbes magazine. Its other Michigan plants, which do metal stamping and plastics molding, are in Royal Oak, Warren, Battle Creek , Evart, Fowlerville, Grand Rapids and Ionia, according to the company’s website.
Flex-N-Gate bought Chrome Craft in 2005. In a 2009 lawsuit, Khan said he was a partner in Chrome Craft dating back to 1993.
Four inspections at the plant from 1992 until its closure found 39 violations of environmental laws, according to documents gathered by the UAW. DEQ issued a letter of warning in 2008 listing 13 violations, including evidence of spills and open containers of hazardous waste outside the plant.
After one such spill, a state inspector noted that “melting snow and ice along with rainwater are causing the sludge to run onto the bare soil.”
In March 2003, Detroit’s Water and Sewerage Department reached an agreement with the plant after it found violations of a permit that allowed the plant to discharge into sewers. In November that year, the plant was fined $1,500 after an inspection showed a probe meant to monitor discharges had been removed. In 2004 and 2005, reviews by the city said the plant was continuously in violation and had significant noncompliance.
When the plant stopped operating in 2009, the City of Highland Park raised questions with DEQ about past spills and violations at the plant and what might be left behind. “I am confident they will do the right thing and if not, we will make sure they do,” a DEQ district supervisor responded in an e-mail to the city. The DEQ asked the city to notify the agency when the plant was completely closed. It has never been completely closed. On Monday, a Flex-N-Gate truck pulled in and unloaded its contents inside the plant, but it was not clear what was in the truck.
DEQ has a new environmental justice policy, adopted under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and designed to make sure that environmental complaints in poor communities are not ignored. The letter to the agency from civic leaders said: “Extra care must be taken to ensure the community isn’t saddled with the legacy of a hazardous waste site for years to come.”
DEQ spokesman Wurfel responded: “Our response is the same as it would be anyplace in the state.”
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