Residents concerned about odor near Kalamazoo packaging mill

KALAMAZOO, Mich. (WOOD) — People living near a cardboard packaging plant are voicing concerns about an odor they say has been a health concern for many years. 

Brandi Crawford-Johnson has lived near the Graphic Packaging International Kalamazoo site for a decade and is concerned emissions from the plant are having an impact on her health. 

“There’s people in this neighborhood, including myself, that have severe asthma and COPD and it’s because there’s nothing capturing these gases,” Crawford-Johnson said. 

Crawford-Johnson points to a recent study by the engineering firm Jones and Henry that says gases are leaking from a junction chamber on the mill’s property, which connects to the city’s nearby wastewater treatment plant. 

News 8 reached out to the City of Kalamazoo on Thursday, asking if the city owns and maintains the connection and did not receive an answer and were referred to state regulators. On Friday, Graphic Packaging International told News 8 the city owns the junction chamber.

“We’re dealing with the strong odor that I recently found out through FOIA requests is H2S, Hydrogen Sulfide, a very highly toxic gas,” Crawford-Johnson said.  

Graphic Packaging International in Kalamazoo. (Aug. 27, 2020)

The Kalamazoo City Commission postponed a decision on a tax incentive package for a major mill expansion in a meeting earlier this month after several residents voiced concerns. 

Director of Public Works James Baker told commissioners during the virtual meeting that his department has been working with Graphic Packaging International to collect data with odor sensors. He also stated the city has been working on projects that will reduce the smell from the wastewater plant. 

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy says it has issued eight odor violation notices against the Graphic Packaging Kalamazoo site since 2010, but no fines have been issued. 

Environmental Quality Analyst Monica Brothers says after a recent violation, EGLE required the company to hire an outside firm to do an odor study, which is still ongoing. The possibility of a fine being issued has also been suspended while the research is being conducted by the firm. 

“Because of the latest violation notice in 2019, we escalated this to our enforcement team, and we had a meeting with Graphic Packaging,” Brothers said. 

Residents can file odor complaints with the department’s Kalamazoo district office by calling 269.567.3500. EGLE also has a Pollution Emergency Alerting System hotline available around the clock at 1.800.292.4706. 

Sue Appleyard, a spokesperson with Graphic Packaging International, issued the following statement to News 8:

“As a community partner, we take these complaints very seriously and understand our responsibility to work with neighbors and the city to address odor concerns. Graphic Packaging is firmly invested in the community, and we will continue to do our part to listen to and address concerns. We will also take whatever steps are appropriate based on the results of odor investigations.  

“To that end, we are working closely with the City of Kalamazoo as part of its task force to understand the source of the odors. We are also independently conducting an odor study, the design of which was approved by the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. In addition, we are working with the City Wastewater Treatment plant to utilize their Envirosuite system, a risk management and environmental compliance tool, which helped us confirm that recent odor complaints were not related to either the wastewater treatment facility or the Graphic Packaging mill. We have also invested in our own Envirosuite system to support the task force efforts.”

The company also issued a statement regarding the tax incentive package:

“Graphic Packaging International is pursuing a $600 million expansion project to redevelop a vacant brownfield site adjacent to our Kalamazoo board mill and invest in a coated recycled paperboard machine. Once fully operational, the new state-of-the-art coated recycled board machine will have an annual capacity of approximately 500,000 tons, significantly increasing our Kalamazoo mill’s production output. Successful completion of the project will position Michigan as the largest manufacturing location of coated recycled board in North America.

“We estimate that the city of Kalamazoo will be the source of over 40% of the coated recycled paperboard in North America. Coated recycled paperboard is used to manufacture cartons for dry grocery products, including cereal, tissue, pasta, baking mixes and N95 masks – all of which are critical during this time. We believe the investment will position us as the most technically advanced producer in our industry, benefitting our customers, our employees, our shareholders, the environment and surrounding communities.

“The proposed tax incentives fairly reflect the $800 million economic benefit our investment is projected to have for the City of Kalamazoo. The benefits include new jobs at the mill, as well as increased manufacturing activity after the new paper machine is operating at full capacity. In addition, the investment will generate an estimated $2 billion of additional economic benefits to the City of Kalamazoo and State of Michigan during the construction period.”

Construction work for an expansion project that has already been approved at Graphic Packaging International in Kalamazoo. (Aug. 27, 2020)