By Harold C. Ford
“It literally stinks.” – Father Phil Schmitter, St. Francis Prayer Center, Aug. 11, 2021
Public opposition to a proposed asphalt plant on the northeast side of Flint was launched by a coalition of groups and individuals opposed to its construction at an Aug. 11 press conference held on the property of the St. Francis Prayer Center, 2381 Carpenter Rd., Flint. The Prayer Center property is adjacent to the proposed site for the asphalt plant on nearby Energy Drive.
The asphalt plant is being proposed by Ajax Paving Industries Inc, a Troy-based company located some 50 miles south on I-75 in Oakland County. Its website trumpets “over 69 years of experience paving high performance roadways, runways, and racetracks.”
According to its flyer, coalition members protesting the proposed plant include: St Francis Prayer Center; Flint Rising; Michigan United; and Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint. Coalition members rallied at Genesee Township Hall later in the day where a public hearing on the asphalt plant was hosted by representatives from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE).
It is expected that EGLE will decide on Sept. 7, according to Jill Greenberg, spokesperson for EGLE , on whether to approve or deny a permit for Ajax Paving Industries Inc. to begin construction of the asphalt plant. Greenberg was present at the public comment session held at the Genesee Township office Monday.
Opposition to the plant clearly is organizing around the issue of pollution in the context of environmental racism.
“Environmental racism works by a particular polity; in this case Genesee Township,” said the Prayer Center’s Father Phil Schmitter. While the proposed asphalt plant would actually be built in Genesee Township, it would be located nearer Flint residents in nearby neighborhoods such as those on Cecil Drive only one tenth mile from the construction site.
“If you drive (north) up Dort Highway, you know that this has become kind of the dumping ground of our community,” Schmitter said. “It’s bad, to put it up at the north end of Flint. And, of course, on the north end of Flint are many people of color, people of low income.
“The people up here are defenseless against the folks in Genesee Township who want to put something that’s polluting far from their people, meanwhile moving it closer and closer (to residents on the Flint side of Carpenter Road),” Schmitter continued. “This is absolutely unconscionable.”
Flint resident Anthony Paciorek, representing Michigan United, a statewide coalition that focuses on environmental justice issues, reminisced about visiting nearby green spaces in his youth. He reminded those present that Bluebell Beach, Stepping Stone Falls, For-Mar Nature Preserve, and Kearsley Reservoir “… are all near this place.”
“We have to take into consideration that this asphalt plant will kick up chemicals that will induce cancer, asthma, and lung cancer in the residents of this neighborhood,” Paciorek said. “We’ve already suffered through one environmental crisis, an ongoing water crisis; we are in a pandemic and now this community is being asked to be exposed to these elements that will directly affect their ability to (resist) further infections during COVID-19 …”
“Asphalt fumes are known toxins”
Some findings by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) about pollutants caused by asphalt plants are included in a 2015 report by the Center for Health, Environment & Justice, Falls Church, VA titled “Asphalt Plant Pollution”:
“Asphalt plants mix gravel and sand with crude oil derivatives to make the asphalt used to pave roads, highways, and parking lots across the U.S. These plants release millions of pounds of chemicals to the air during production each year, including many cancer-causing toxic air pollutants such as arsenic, benzene, formaldehyde, cadmium … hexane, phenol, polycyclic organic matter, and toluene …”
“Other toxic chemicals are released into the air as the asphalt is loaded into trucks and hauled from the plant site, including volatile organic compounds, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), and very fine condensed particulates.”
“Exposure to these air toxics may cause cancer, central nervous system problems, liver damage, respiratory problems and skin irritation … coughing, wheezing or shortness of breath, severe irritation of the skin, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Animal studies show PAHs affect reproduction, cause birth defects and are harmful to the immune system.”
According to its website, Ajax has six asphalt plants in Michigan: New Haven; Auburn Hills; Rochester Hills; Romulus; Brighton; and Warren.
“If you’ve flown ‘in or out’ of Michigan or Florida, there’s a solid chance you’ve experienced our work firsthand,” the website states. “The same goes for many of the roads and highways in the Midwest.”
Ajax claims “strict adherence to safety standards and best practices …at our facilities and job sites to ensure worker safety, production, and efficiency.”
Activists undeterred by safety claims
“I’m kind of appealing to the people of Genesee Township to choose not to do this, and I’m asking Ajax not to do this,” Schmitter said. “And I’m also asking the Department of Environmental Quality … to look at the cumulative impact as we keep putting more and more (polluting) facilities here, we wind up with more and more danger and pollution.”
The explanation given by public officials, according to Schmitter: “It’s within the guidelines. If you put ten facilities in close proximity, within the guidelines, it makes a mess for the people who have to do such things as breathe.”
“I’m angry we can hide behind a veil of rules and regulations,” said Debbie Hawley, the Prayer Center’s director for the past decade.
“This pollution that is going to come from this plant is going to affect, not just the people that are (nearby) but thousands of people in this community,” Hawley said. “You just cannot roll over the most impoverished and challenged people in the city just because you can.”
Hawley touted the Prayer Center as quiet, family-friendly, spiritually-enriching, and beautiful, a place that inspires many community service projects.
Schmitter noted people often come to the Prayer Center for a “quiet place to think and pray and be in touch with the Lord and that’s going to change radically when the smell fills the air from the asphalt plant.”
Construction has begun
More than one speaker at the press conference claimed that construction at the site had already begun without the necessary permits having been secured.
Indeed, a visit to the Energy Drive property by several reporters revealed evidence of site development, construction materials, and several pieces of heavy equipment emblazoned with the Ajax logo.
One tenth mile from the site on Cecil Drive, children were riding their bikes on the streets and sidewalks and playing in their front yards.
Coalition members urged those who oppose the plant to contact EGLE by Sept. 7 when the state agency will make a decision about permitting construction of the asphalt plant proposed for the Energy Drive location:
- By email: EGLE-AQD-PTIPublicComments@Michigan.gov
- By U.S. mail: EGLE, Air Quality Division, Permit Section, P.O. Box 30260, Lansing, MI 49909-7760
- By voicemail: 517-284-0900
A flyer was handed out Monday to protestors at the Genesee Township office with more information about how to contact and comment on the proposed Ajax plant. If you have questions about Ajax’s permit application and/or the public comment process, contact Ambrosia Brown, who is with the Permit Section of EGLE’s Air Quality Division, at (517) 648-6216 or by email at BrownA39@Michigan.gov
EVM reporter, Harold Ford, can be reached at email@example.com.