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A doctor says health recommendations for people living near Graphic Packaging are insufficient

An air quality sensor with solar energy panels in front of Kalamazoo's wastewater treatment plant.
Leona Larson
Kalamazoo has placed 10 EnvronSuite air monitors in neighborhoods and six within the sewage plant. Citizens can see the monitoring results on the city's website.

Several years ago a Kalamazoo resident asked a Chicago doctor to look at air quality and health impacts for people who live near a paper mill and a sewage plant. He’s critical of state health recommendations released this week.

The Michigan Department of Health and Human Services studied levels of hydrogen sulfide and other gases near Graphic Packaging International and the Kalamazoo wastewater treatment plant. It found levels the health department said can cause headaches, nausea, and eye irritation.

The findings didn’t surprise Dr. David Ansell. But the epidemiologist and senior vice president for community health equity at Rush Medical University Center in Chicago was surprised by the report’s recommendations. It suggested that people with respiratory problems like asthma stay inside on high-odor days. Ansell says that doesn’t address the problem.

“The solution in Flint wasn't to say to families and children ‘don't drink the water.’ Just like it’s here, you can't tell people, ‘well don't breathe the air.’”

He said the city and the state need to focus on the cause of the problem and curb gas emissions at both plants, and consider moving people into temporary housing until the problem is fixed.

James Baker is the director of Kalamazoo Public Services. He said the city is already working to reduce sewage-processing emissions. Baker said a redesigned pipeline from Graphic Packaging to the sewage plant next door should noticeably improve odors on Kalamazoo’s north and east sides.

He said the project should be completed within the next year. It’s just one of several odor mitigation improvements Baker says the city has made, or is planning to make to get gas emission levels to zero.

“A lot of these improvements continue to kind of stack on top of each other. And with odors, if we smell something we're not done yet. Right? So, each one of these solutions helps.”

Baker said Kalamazoo has already made over $5 million in improvements. He says citizens can monitor the levels on the city’s EnviroSuite website. The program updates hydrogen sulfide levels every 15 minutes. There’s also a spot to report odor issues.

Leona has worked as a journalist for most of her life - in radio, print, television and as journalism instructor. She has a background in consumer news, special projects and investigative reporting.