The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality can’t say whether the odor residents complained of from Polar Environmental Service Corp. on Dec. 2 was harmful, but the Ferndale-based company will soon have limits placed on its emissions, a state DEQ representative said.
The state environmental agency received a permit application from Polar last week and will begin reviewing it this week, according to Chris Ethridge, environmental manager with the DEQ's air quality division.
The incident occurred after an employee at the facility, which handles the disposal and recycling of nonhazardous waste oil and wastewater, forgot to turn off the heat in a tank that was heating oil, and the result was an odor that spread through north Ferndale, Pleasant Ridge, Berkley and Royal Oak.
Local fire departments and Consumers Energy received at least 400 calls from residents concerned about the smell, and residents have continued to bring questions to city management, as well as to the DEQ, about whether the odor could have been harmful.
Testing measured composition of oil, not specific tank emissions
A state inspector has since visited the Ferndale facility and pulled oil samples for testing. Though those results will be used in the overall permit application, Ethridge said they don’t necessarily address residents' concerns.
“The testing that was done is essentially just testing the composition of what’s in the oil,” he said. “It doesn't necessarily show the composition of emissions coming off their process.”
Because the DEQ was not present when the incident occurred, Ethridge said there is no way of knowing at this point exactly what was released. “That would have required us to sample the emissions that come off the tanks,” he said. “It's very difficult to say exactly what people were exposed to.”
Polar seeks permit, which will set emission limits
The DEQ cited Polar for the incident and notified the company that it would need to apply for a permit. Polar had been operating under an exemption, Ethridge said, but it now needs a permit “based on the fact that they overheated some of this oil and could no longer meet criteria for that exemption.”
In addition to setting emission limits, the permit will help the DEQ ensure compliance at the facility, he said.
“That's why we wanted the company to come in and get this permit so we could set limits to be sure no one is going to be exposed to anything that would be harmful after the permit is issued,” Ethridge said.
Though it had previously been reported that the emissions were not a risk to residents, Ethridge said that without any data, it is not possible to say for sure. “We would never say one way or the other unless we had actual data of the composition of what’s coming off that tank,” he said.
Ethridge added that the citation issued “does not validate or verify that there was anything harmful.”
On Dec. 6, Polar issued a letter of apology and said it was looking into the issue.
Ethridge said Polar has been cooperative with the DEQ. “The company has been very cooperative, and they're in agreement with us that they need to get the permit at this point,” he said.
'Not hazardous, it just has an odor,' Polar sales manager says
Mark Swirczek, sales manager with Polar Environmental, said residents should know that Polar does not handle hazardous waste. “We don't take any hazardous waste in here. It's not hazardous, it just has an odor,” he said.
He said the company has hired an outside firm to do testing and assist in improving the company's processes. He said it would have a report ready in about two to three weeks. “They're finishing compiling everything to put something together,” he said.
Swirczek said the company has “tightened” its processes and is taking the incident seriously.
“We’ve been here for a long time, and we expect to stay here for a long time,” he said.
Public hearing likely for permit
A timeline for the permit process is difficult to estimate, Ethridge said, but he expects it will be done by the end of this year and “probably much sooner.”
Once a permit is drafted, but before it is issued, there is a 30-day window in which any resident can request a public hearing. Ethridge said he expects there will be requests for a hearing in this case.
Ferndale City Manager April McGrath said she will keep residents advised of when a public hearing is scheduled. She said residents would be welcome to go to Lansing to share their opinions on the permit at the hearing.
"Every question or concern anyone makes regarding a permit will require, in writing, an answer from DEQ addressing those concerns and answering those questions,” she said.
Facebook group formed for concerned residents
Robert McGee, a former Ferndale mayor who now lives in Ann Arbor, said he was approached last summer by a group of Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge residents who asked him to head a group looking into environmental concerns in their communities.
"As a former mayor of Ferndale, even though I have moved away, my heart and love are still with those communities, so I agreed," McGee said.
Since the odor incident Dec. 2, McGee has focused attention on Polar Environmental and said he is concerned about "misinformation" being spread about the safety of the odor.
"Who do you believe? Until the state of Michigan's regulatory body — in this instance, (the DEQ) or the EPA — states that those odors are harmless, I feel everyone should be very concerned," he said.
McGee is involved in a Facebook group for residents concerned about Polar Environmental.
"Social media has been such a powerful tool to communicate concerns among residents in this matter," he said. "There are Facebook groups actively discussing residents' concerns."
To report a concern
Ethridge said the DEQ will periodically spot-check the Polar facility, and residents can call the inspector on the case at 586-735-3735 if they have questions about the incident or if they smell a strong odor from the facility.
After-hours reports on strong odors can be called in to the Pollution Emergency Assistance System at 800-292-4706. Residents should call 911 first in the event of any suspected natural gas leak to rule out an emergency.