“It’s a toxic dump”: Michigan is now where the US’s most risky chemicals end up
Michigan’s predicament with hazardous waste management, particularly in Wayne County, raises significant environmental and public health concerns. This situation is underscored by the influx of hazardous wastes from various states into Michigan, turning it into a focal point for commercial hazardous waste facilities.
Wayne Disposal and Michigan Disposal, two of the largest hazardous waste facilities in the nation, are located in Wayne County. These sites have received an alarming volume of waste over the years. From 2019 through late June of this year, Wayne Disposal brought in 1.8 million tons of waste for landfilling, and Michigan Disposal processed over 1.2 million tons.
The types of hazardous waste managed include highly dangerous chemicals such as dioxins, PCBs, cyanide compounds, PFAS compounds, arsenic, asbestos, and many others.
Wayne Disposal is notably one of only 12 federally licensed PCB landfills in the U.S. and the only one in the Midwest. This specialization means PCB wastes from out of state are a significant part of its operations. In 2021, Wayne Disposal took in over 1 million pounds of PCB wastes. PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls) are known human carcinogens and have been linked to various diseases and reduced IQ, akin to lead exposure.
These facilities not only serve Michigan’s industries but also cater to other states. In 2021, Wayne Disposal received at least 417,000 tons of hazardous waste from states east of the Mississippi River. This interstate transportation of hazardous waste has been a subject of concern, as it brings these dangerous materials through local communities daily.
The management of these facilities has not been without challenges. There have been instances of significant noncompliance with environmental law at Wayne Disposal, including violations like toxic leachate spills into surface water and improper handling of hazardous waste. Michigan Disposal has also faced issues, particularly in controlling chemical reactions during waste processing, leading to fires.
Additionally, in 2022, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) issued a violation notice to Michigan Disposal related to two fires at the processing facility in 2020. These fires were caused by chemical reactions in batches of hazardous waste.
The transport of hazardous waste from other states into Michigan is protected under the U.S. Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which prohibits states from discriminating against interstate commerce. As such, waste products, hazardous or not, are considered ‘articles of commerce’ and are subject to this provision.
The situation in Michigan, particularly in Wayne County, highlights the complex challenges of hazardous waste management. It underscores the need for stringent regulatory oversight, effective safety protocols, and heightened public awareness to ensure both environmental and public health are safeguarded.