KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — Thursday night, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services held a town hall in Kalamazoo, discussing the results of an investigation into an unpleasant odor in parts of the city. The study focused on two facilities on Kalamazoo’s north side.
For some Kalamazoo residents, especially on the north side, a smell coming from Graphic Packaging International and the Kalamazoo Water Reclamation Plant has caused worries for years.
“We are right next to both of these plants that are poisoning the air,” said Jordan Swinkunaz, Kalamazoo resident.
In 2020, MDHHS said they were alerted to the concerns, leading to them to launch an investigation.
“We were asked by the local health department of Kalamazoo County to look into odor complaints and health concerns in the neighborhoods surrounding Graphic Packaging International and the Wastewater Reclamation Plant,” said Marcus Wasilevich, a toxicologist with MDHHS.
Thursday, a gym inside Mt. Zion Baptist Church in Kalamazoo was filled with dozens of community members as questions were answered about the study.
In the report released earlier this month, the department said hydrogen sulfide and other volatile organic compounds in the air were high enough for an odor to be detected in surrounding neighborhoods. People with chronic exposure are also at an increased risk of developing nasal and eye irritation, and breathing problems.
During the town hall that lasted over three hours, emotions ran high as some residents shared how the odor may have impacted them. It has not been proven that the odor directly led to any health issues people shared.
“Our children would come home every day, runny noses, sneezing, coughing, just a whole litany of these types of issues,” said Adam Frazier, a Kalamazoo County resident.
“Our babies are getting sick, we are getting sick. Are you listening?” said Kalamazoo resident Nadine Whitfield.
On Feb. 1, GPI was fined $109,270 and was ordered to abide by a compliance plan.
The City of Kalamazoo invested more than $5 million to mitigate the problems at its sewage plant. Some of the city’s efforts include installing carbon air scrubbers, placing new air monitors in nearby neighborhoods and implementing new odor-reducing procedures for truck loading.
Some residents said they want further action taken, especially at GPI.
“Y’all are failing this community. We’re sick and I’m saying shut it down, that would be the response and you’re telling me you can’t answer to that,” said Emma Munson-Blatt, a Kalamazoo resident.
MDHHS said it will continue to monitor the air and make public health recommendations as needed.
According to MDHHS’ study, asthma hospitalization rates in the two ZIP code areas near the plant were not significantly higher than the rest of the state but they will conduct additional analyses of patterns of asthma in the area.
“We as a health department want to keep looking at your community air to make sure those actions are working,” Wasilevich said.
Graphic Packaging International released a statement Thursday night.
“Graphic Packaging International (GPI) is actively engaged with the city’s sewage plant (the Kalamazoo Water Reclamation Plant) bordering our property in addressing nuisance odors. We remain steadfast in the commitments we’ve outlined in our Odor Action Plan, and our improvements should reach $8 million by the end of this year. Our Kalamazoo mill remains compliant with state and federal requirements regarding air quality. We attended the town hall hosted by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) on May 18. Our intent was to better understand the key findings from the MDHHS health assessment and to hear the community’s concerns. We will continue to cooperate with MDHHS and EGLE.
We are optimistic about the potential for continued odor reduction from initiatives already planned this year, including the city’s work to re-route its pipeline that crosses GPI’s property. This is a complex issue, requiring collaboration across multiple stakeholders to drive solutions. We participate actively on the Odor Task Force and the Community Advisory Committee, and we engage regularly with state regulators and our city and state’s elected officials to review our plans and progress.”Graphic Packaging International
Another town hall is scheduled for Wednesday, May 24 at 1 p.m. at Urban Alliance in Kalamazoo.