The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is making oversight of in Ferndale a high priority since a waste oil steam release Dec. 2 prompted hundreds of concerned residents to call local public safety agencies and Consumers Energy over what smelled like a natural gas leak, City Manager April McGrath said.
"Over the course of last week, there has been a lot of concern on what happened and what is being done about it," McGrath said Monday night during the Ferndale City Council meeting. "The DEQ is making this a huge priority in their work load right now. They are taking control of what is going on over at Polar, taking on a high priority."
Foul smell spreads miles
On Dec. 2, an employee at Polar, at 707 E. Lewiston, forgot to turn the heat off and the result was an odor that .
The company disposes of and recycles "nonhazardous" waste oil, its website says. Ferndale Fire Chief Kevin Sullivan said that Friday night this employee was "cooking up waste oil" to 170 degrees. He then added a flocking agent, which basically gathers loose particles and settles them at the bottom of a container. The tank of waste oil should have been shut down at that point, but it wasn't. The employee added the agent and left, Sullivan said.
It overheated, reaching temperatures of 200 degrees, and the steam released was what the residents smelled that evening.
The scope of the stink resulted in hundreds of calls placed to local fire departments and Consumers Energy because residents thought it might have been a gas leak.
On Dec. 6, and said it was looking into the issue.
Though , the incident has sparked the DEQ to put Polar under a microscope, so to speak.
Tightening up on Polar
McGrath said the DEQ has cited Polar for the Dec. 2 incident and over the last few months has been working with the company, tightening the regulations placed on it.
Before the Dec. 2 incident, Polar wasn't required by the state to apply for a permit for its discharges. McGrath said the levels the company discharged were under the requirement for a permit with the DEQ. The company did have to submit documents on what and how much it was discharging, but the permit process wasn't part of its operations.
That is about to change.
Permits now required for Polar
"According to the DEQ, that has changed now and what (Polar) wants to discharge requires a permit," McGrath said.
This is where residents with questions and concerns about Polar's activities can be part of the process. Along with this permit comes a public comment requirement and, McGrath said, each permit Polar applies for would be up for public comment.
"(Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge staff) are making sure we have regular updates from the DEQ so residents are aware of when that (public) comment will be made, you can go to Lansing and be heard," McGrath said. "Every question or concern anyone makes regarding a permit will require in writing an answer from DEQ addressing those concerns and answering those questions."
Mayor Pro Tem Kate Baker took it a step further and asked about bringing the public comment to Ferndale. According to Sullivan, a municipality can request that the public comment be local. "We need to persuade the DEQ to hold a public hearing here. It's very important to come here and hear the residents instead of them going to Lansing," she said.
McGrath said that before the permitting process is in place, however, the current violations have to be addressed and Polar has to get into compliance. She thinks that probably around January or February a permit would come in from the DEQ to allow Polar to continue discharging.
Keep DEQ, fire department in loop
Moving forward, the DEQ has requested that residents contact the agency if odors continue to be be prevalent in the area.
"DEQ staff would like any kind of report from anyone of any kind of odor complaint," the fire chief said.
"However, any time anyone smells (natural gas) odors, they should immediately call 911 or dispatch first before calling the DEQ so we can come to make sure it's not an immediate life-threatening situation."
What was actually released not yet available
As for the discharged odor, what was exactly in it won't be known for another two or three weeks, Sullivan said. The DEQ is testing the oil in the tank in its raw form and what the temperature may have done to it. "At this time they're not able to say if anything health hazardous-wise was released with that type of oil," Sullivan said.
Polar is cooperating with the city and DEQ during this process, Mayor Dave Coulter said. But this isn't the first incident at Polar. "We've dealt with Polar for many years, but they have always, on any type of issue, have been responsive and try to mediate the issue," Sullivan said.
Yet, despite the odors released in the past, Polar hasn't violated federal EPA law. "There is no shutting them down unless there is an immediate, proven health hazard coming from the facility," Sullivan said. "You can't shut them down."
Taking the issue to the next level
Al Hazen moved to Pleasant Ridge in 2003 and said he's been calling about this issue ever since. He said over the years he's called the Ferndale Fire Department several times. "This is the first time (the issue) was taken to a different level," he said. "I just want to thank you."
Newly elected Pleasant Ridge Commissioner Jason Krzysiak also was at the meeting – along with Pleasant Ridge City Manager Sherry Ball and another newly elected Pleasant Ridge Commissioner, Ann Perry – to discuss the Polar incident.
"I want to assure the residents of both of our communities ... that the governments in Ferndale and Pleasant Ridge are taking this issue very seriously and ... we are all working on this issue," Krzysiak said.
The DEQ said it will continue to monitor Polar and make sure the company is following the timeline for compliance and will do so in a timely manner, McGrath said.
She believes these actions were taken due to the amount of calls the DEQ received since the Dec. 2 incident. Krzysiak said calling about Polar, should there be another odor incident, should continue.
"A call to Consumers Energy is proper and warranted, but if you take that extra time and make sure your house isn't going to blow up, make that extra call to the state," he said. "The more residents that response to this issue, the greater movement we'll see on this issue."
Do you live in the area near Polar? How often have you smelled this odor?