Wasted in Detroit: What’s that stuff coming out of my toilet and taps?

IMAGINE that you live in an ordinary residential neighbourhood, leafy trees, nice sidewalks, decent houses, not rich and fancy but you like it there. And imagine that one day, you come home and find a horrendous stench coming from the sewer grates in front of your house and when you open your door, the same unbelievable stench is inside your house – you think maybe it smells of fecal matter and petrochemicals, but how can that be? It’s so bad it makes yours eyes water, your lungs hack and it makes you want to vomit.

Then imagine that instead of going away, on certain days it comes back worse than before, causing your children’s eyes to burn and their little bodies to retch over the toilet. Your neighbours report the same thing. And then imagine that, as the weeks and months go by, on certain days, a terrifying black sludge reeking of that stench, but worse, starts to ooze up from your toilets and drains and even comes out of your taps. And neither you nor your neighbours have any clue about what this stuff is, and your municipal representatives aren’t telling.

So as the weeks and months and then, even years unfold, your whole house and everything in it – your furniture, your linens, your clothes – start to smell like the stuff that’s oozing in, in some houses piling up in the basement more than a foot, two feet, three feet at a time. You and your neighbours are suffering from all kinds of eye and nose irritations, asthmatic conditions, nausea and digestive disorders, people are getting sick right and left.

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Greendale Street, Detroit  Photo Credit: Google maps

So you band together and finally you call in help – Sierra Club and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice – to try to figure out what’s going on, and how to stop it because your appeals to City Hall have – unbelievably – fallen on deaf ears. And then the efforts continue.

So over the ten years it takes you, your neighbours and your allies to bring a halt to the toxic sludge invasion you learn a number of things.

You learn that the filthy, stinking black water and sludge is toxic waste being hauled in by a company called CanFlow, home base Petrolia, Ontario. Canflow collects waste from the chemical refineries in Sarnia, and dumps it into your ancient sewers through a nearby plant. Ergo, fecal and chemical smells – you were right about that unthinkable combination.

You learn that Canflow is one of 400 companies permitted to send “nonhazardous industrial wastewater” to the city’s sewage treatment plant. You learn that twenty-four of the companies are currently in violation of their discharge permits, though Canflow is – jaw-droppingly – not on that list.


A Canflow truck, unmarked, unsuspected. Photo Credit: Rhonda Anderson

You learn that Canflow’s permit for the discharges is granted by the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department in conjunction with the state Department of Environmental Quality. Your mind boggles that the DEQ would grant this permit.

You learn that even though, as part of Detroit’s extensive industrial discharge program, the water Canflow dumps is supposed to be nonhazardous, since 1996 the city and state have cited Canflow repeatedly for exceeding allowed levels of pollutants and for failing to provide documentation that its waste is not hazardous. More than a decade ago, the company was convicted of bringing hazardous waste into Michigan without a license and selling it as boiler fuel to manufacturers.

You learn that, according to its permit, Canflow is supposed to remove any oils, solids or toxic levels of metals from the water before dumping it into the sewer. Canflow insists there is no evidence that any of the waste and sewage water that invaded your home and ruined your life contained any unpermitted materials, but hey! Nobody actually tested any of the ooze that backed up into the basements! So who are you going to believe? The Canflow officials or your sick children and neighbours?

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You nearly go mad with the pollution and the corruption and the never-ending obstacles and the lies and negligence, so after nearly a decade of this, with Sierra Club and DWEJ, you and your neighbours extend your alliance to bring in the local labour movement, and launch a class-action suit against Canflow. At last, with that and big changes at City Hall, you finally bring the dumping to an end.

Detroiters protest outside Canflow – Photo Credit: Rhonda Anderson

But not before – long before – it has done terrible, irreparable damage to health, property and property values for which there is no accountability or recourse: not for the respiratory or gastrointestinal diseases, not for the reproductive illnesses (miscarriages), for the lead poisoning and even elevated cancer levels. Not for the contaminated housing and devalued real estate. Not even for the harm caused to the municipal sewage system, some of which was so old it was made of wood. No fines were paid to have the system repaired.

Detroit 5Psst… It’s not just Detroit, it’s not just Flint. “This is what’s flowing out of the taps in Crystal Springs, TX. A town where the FBI has arrested nearly all of the top officials.” – Photo Credit: BigAstra

The full name of the company that dumped toxic waste in Greendale is Canflow Environmental Services. It is based in Petrolia, Ontario and is a waste management company that handles many clients throughout Southwestern Ontario with Sarnia refineries at the top of the list. Here is how Canflow advertises its services (on their website), language that sheds light on what they were dumping in Greendale:

Waste management services specializing in the removal of hydrocarbons and other contaminants from oilfield wastewater streams produced during oil and gas operations, transpiration, and storage. We use technologically advanced, cost-effective environmental systems and products to treat a wide variety of waste streams. CES’s technologies are combined with highly-trained service personnel who optimize equipment to handle and treat waste fluids, meeting current and future legislation and reduced waste disposal costs.

Canflow Environmental Services’ “technologically advanced” methods to “meet current and future legislation” and “reduce waste disposal costs” were to truck phenomenally toxic sludge across the U.S.-Canada border and dump it into the sewer system of a Detroit residential neighborhood, grievously harming thousands of people for ten years. The company reduced its costs all right – while committing extremely serious environmental crimes. But oh yes, nobody went to jail either.

Waste Warrior

WE learned about the Greendale story from one of the key people who helped the residents to confront those responsible for the creature from the black lagoon whose hundreds of tentacles started coming up their drains, making them sick and ruining their homes and their lives. Today, Rhonda Anderson is Sierra Club/Detroit Senior Organizing Manager, Beyond Coal Campaign & Healthy Communities. When we met her in 2014, she was Sierra Club/Detroit’s Environmental Justice Regional Program director.

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Rhonda Anderson along the Detroit River in River Rouge – Photo Credit: Windsor Star

Rhonda came of age in the ’60s in River Rouge – but not as a flower child. Far from it: as a black student in downtown Detroit, one of her indelible memories is of the spontaneous flooding of young black people into the streets after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. It was a politicizing moment, a turning point in her life. (By amazing coincidence, that day I was driving through Detroit on my way to Chicago, so we shared some memories). Since then, in one way or another, Rhonda has worked for environmental, racial and gender justice. She told us she realized years ago that many Detroit youth showed the effects of growing up in toxic environments and realized that social justice was profoundly linked to environmental issues.

By way of illustrating just how bad those issues were as she was growing up and as she became involved in environmental justice struggles, she also told us that many years ago she visited Louisiana’s infamous Cancer Alley – that corridor of refineries from Baton Rouge to New Orleans – along with other environmental justice activists from different parts of the country. When they descended from their tour bus, her traveling companions were horrified to witness – through sight and smell and the stories of local people – the damage done by the refineries and their proximity to people’s homes and shops. But she experienced no such surprise, because, as she told us, she realized that the neighbourhood of River Rouge was just as bad, had always been just as bad, as this Louisiana corridor; it had simply never won any national attention.

So in her current position, Rhonda Anderson works to detoxify Detroit – especially the environments where young people live, play and study.

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In Detroit, heaps of petcoke await export to places like China and India, where the tar-sands byproduct is burned like coal. (Stephen Boyle, FuzzyTek Images) Credit: Citylab.com

A campaigning genius, she helped win the initial victory over the Marathon petcoke dunes by getting households in Southwest Detroit in which people were sick from the waste product of Alberta tar sands oil refining to put white crosses on their lawns. There were so many white crosses that the visual message became a powerful and effective tool in the first round of fights and the first court decisions for the community.

Rhonda Anderson never runs out of work. Because the issues – the challenges, the nightmares – of toxic waste from chemical refining is a never-ending problem, and not only, needless to say, in Detroit.

It’s everywhere, it’s everywhere – even when you don’t know it

DURING the trips that David and I made on our exploration of life in a chemical region, we visited a number of fence-line communities – places where people live in far too close proximity to petrochemical industries as well as other sources of pollution. These places included, for example, Southwest Detroit, where 10,000 trucks bearing 60 per cent of the trade between the Canada and the US daily descend into residential streets from the Ambassador Bridge (pictured above near the petcoke dunes) and leave their emissions behind; where a huge Marathon Oil (Koch-owned) refinery, a power plant, steel mill and a massive, antiquated residential and industrial sewage disposal facility all fill the air with toxic fumes; and where the asthma rate is the highest in the U.S. These places included certainly Sarnia and its Chemical Valley. These are “sacrifice zones,”without a doubt, and arguably, as in Sarnia’s case, “sacrifice cities.”

Then there are the places where the toxics are mostly indoors. In the story, “Hot Plastics In Windsor” you can read about what it is like for women workers in small factories where they melt down the plastic beads that Sarnia, among other places, produces up-river and mold them into automotive parts in scores of small factories around that city, plants mirrored in a scattering of a couple of hundred similar outfits across the river in Eastern Michigan.

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Midland (home of Dow Chemical) sign – Photo Credit: Michigan NPR radio

We did not get as far as Midland – the home of Dow Chemical or to West Michigan, to places like Waukegan, the site of a decades-old toxics legacy documented in the moving book Lake Effects – on this set of trips. But the petrochemical industry reaches across the state all the way to Lake Michigan, so live and legacy toxic hot spots dot the state from stem to stern. Midland was and remains a battleground.

In the old automotive towns and, above all in Detroit itself, the evidence of legacy toxics sites was everywhere  – the abandoned factories were a disturbing sight, usually found side by side with residential streets, and clearly marked many of the places where remediation was needed to restore the land beneath them to livability.

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The derelict Packard plant, surrounded by residential streets, Credit: Sometimes Interesting

We also saw derelict public buildings – libraries, train stations – that had once been big and beautiful, streets of burnt-out homes, corners with long-gone gas stations, their below-ground storage tanks abandoned too. In Lansing, from a director at the Michigan Environmental Council we learned there were something like 70,000 such tanks across the state. The map of Detroit below, created in 2013, showed areas with toxic air and soil problems, from one of the most remarkable city-based environmental groups we have ever encountered, the above-mentioned Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ)

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Map of Detroit showing areas with toxic air and soil problems: also a map of poverty in the city – from ‘Redfields to Greenfields’ – Detroit 2013/Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice

But the Greendale story was about a community that was far from chemical producing or using facilities, that was not a “sacrifice zone”, yet was laid waste by a “waste management” company that advertises itself as providing “environmental services.” So let’s take a closer look at the industry of which Canflow was a part.

Waste Not

The amount of toxic waste we produce is almost incalculable, and presents an enormous problem for our species, and others. Here’s what National Geographic has to say about what is involved in toxic waste disposal:

Hazardous wastes are poisonous by-products of manufacturing, farming, city septic systems, construction, automotive garages, laboratories, hospitals, and other industries. The waste may be liquid, solid, or sludge and contain chemicals, heavy metals, radiation, dangerous pathogens, or other toxins. Even households generate hazardous waste from items such as batteries, used computer equipment, and leftover paints or pesticides. The waste can harm humans, animals, and plants if they encounter these toxins buried in the ground, in stream runoff, in groundwater that supplies drinking water, or in floodwaters, as happened after Hurricane Katrina. Some toxins, such as mercury, persist in the environment and accumulate. Humans or animals often absorb them when they eat fish.

In other words, this waste is extremely dangerous stuff, and its disposal and the reclamation of land and water from it, must be done carefully, conscientiously, impeccably, or people get badly hurt, sometimes for generations; not infrequently, people die from exposures or the diseases caused by exposures.

Safe disposal – both on-going disposal of live toxic waste, and post-facto remediation- involves massive efforts and massive costs. And so it has become – “every problem is an opportunity” as the saying goes – a major source of enterprise. This in turn is a highly varied field, containing both good and bad actors.

Some people, especially the one who are truly invested in their communities, get it right.

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Photo Credit: Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice

DWEJ with its many projects and work areas, its deep grass roots and partnership building activities, is a remarkable, a wonderful exemplar of great ways to approach remediation and reclamation. With partners of various kinds, public, private and community-based, for decades it has been seeking to identify the areas in Detroit that need help, and has developed many plans and projects to actualize its visions. DWEJ programs recruit people in need of employment, or better employment, and train them in remediation (“brown fields to green fields”) and green building methods.

They find investors to pay for the work, reclaim land and reconstruct houses, blocks and whole communities. Because they are part of those communities, they take great care for the safety of the workers and the residents. The benefits of their programs spread from every point along this chain, throughout the city. Like the Oakland, CA based Dream Corps, DWEJ puts environmental justice principles – and what I’ve called “Green Deal” principles – into action and shows how so many different parties – in DWEJ’s case, the whole city – can win when this approach is employed.

We visited DWEJ, we saw their work, we were heartened and impressed. DWEJ is, without doubt, a great example of the good news in legacy toxics. Very good news. They struggle every day to find ways to finance their programs, however, and it is an understatement to say that nobody in that organization or its programs is getting rich. In that sense, remediation is in no sense, for them and organizations like them, a golden goose.

Detroit 13More than 1700 extremely hazardous industrial waste sites designated by the Superfund. This is in Tampa Bay, Florida. 49 million Americans live near a Superfund site. Photo Credit –  Creative Loafing Tampa Bay

Looking beyond Michigan, another good news story has chapters in many parts of the U.S. where uplifting results have been achieved in many Superfund sites as well (though the fund itself has nothing like the resources it actually needs.) One example is the transformation of the former Rocky Mountain Arsenal, near Denver. National Geographic tells this story:

During World War II the U.S. Army made mustard gas at the site, which is about the size of Manhattan, and later the nerve gas sarin; the Shell Chemical Company produced the pesticide dieldrin there. Waste was shunted into a basin that became a black hole of contamination.

When Sherry Skipper first arrived at the site as a young biologist in the early 1990s, she would often don booties, respirators, and goggles to check on starlings she was using, like canaries in a coal mine, to monitor pollution. The birds fed on worms and burrowing insects that accumulated dieldrin. Skipper remembers one damp spring in particular when the earthworms emerged—and birds that ate them fell out of trees, convulsing. “That’s never going to happen again,” she said ….

The place is now a wildlife refuge, and Skipper was riding around it with its manager, David Lucas of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. It’s a wholly altered landscape. The chemical facilities were razed between 1999 and 2003 and covered with a “biota barrier”—ground-up tarmac from the old Denver airport topped by four feet of soil—to keep animals from burrowing into the contamination. Native prairie grasses now whisk water away from it. On the refuge’s fringes, wells block the spread of polluted groundwater. New town houses have sprouted on the border.

Getting away with murder

AS chemical industries, and those who work with their most direct by-products, have burgeoned over the last one hundred years, and as regulations – at least in many jurisdictions – have demanded better toxics controls, a for-profit industry to ‘manage’ environmental impacts and risks has also developed both inside and alongside the huge chemical companies. This is a big business that often flies the environmental banner, a truthful banner with respect to the work of some of its actors, but pure spin and outright deception with respect to the work of others.


There is no question that environmental managers have helped various companies in various installations improve their polluting records, within their plants, in their neighborhoods, and with respect to what they send downstream, in water, soil and air. It is also a fact that so much of this effort has been grudging and minimalist – what can be got away with, rather than what is good for the environment and people, what the law allows rather than what safety and good health demand – and shows foot-dragging, concealment, resistance and reluctance across states and provinces, and across decades

The fact is, to very serious and widespread consequences, all too frequently petrochemical companies flout laws and regulations, and the waste management departments or companies that assist them participate in their crimes – sometimes, oftentimes, with the de jure or de facto protection of the law (see sidebar for just one example).

One of the worst offenders in this sector is the field that that calls itself “environmental management,” a labeling that, when used as greenwashing instead of the truth, is not just a matter of Orwellian degradation of language – though it is certainly that. Rather it is a form of dangerous mendacity that makes it far harder for people at risk of toxic exposure to identify the waste disposal companies, their trucks and containers, and grasp quickly and get effective outcomes when these are engaged in activities that pose a threat. This is not unusual or unlikely, alas.

detroit-15-e1516983436411.pngYou may have noticed that the Greendale waste-dumping story included our old friends deceit, denial and government complicity. Well, these are features that have been known to characterize the toxic waste industry more or less since its inception.

Graphic Credit: Sally Homemaker

These old friends were documented as early as 1978 at the federal level (U.S.), eight years after the founding of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). If you want to know more about “How the Once Tiny Waste Management Industry Captured EPA and Became VERY BIG,” you have only to read the words of former senior EPA branch chief, William Sanjour in his hair-raising account of this process. In it, he cites a chilling passage from Michael Harold Brown’s, Laying Waste: The Poisoning of America by Toxic Chemicals that can serve as a great introduction to the bewildering and terrifying experience of the one small community we learned about:

Detroit 16“Like an imported animal species let loose on virgin soil, the waste brokers have proliferated throughout the nation, settling into a lagoon complex in one place, a landfill in another, and focusing their attention on highly industrialized states—California, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Texas. Several of them—SCA Services, Waste Management, Browning-Ferris Industries, Rollins Environmental Services—have reached the proportions of conglomerates, gobbling up independent landfill operations and spreading themselves on vast sites.”

You would never know about this record – past or present – from the self-congratulatory public relations the big companies and their associations have kept as permanent campaigns for decades. Canadians and Americans alike are daily bombarded by television and print advertising sponsored by oil and chemical associations, displaying attractive young professionals who speak about their dedication to clean energy, clean extraction and refining technologies, efforts to restore settling ponds to waterfowl ponds. Let’s applaud these efforts where they are real and successful.  


‘Responsible Care’ campaign graphic       – Photo Credit: American Chemistry Council     

But it is also true that there is a phenomenal amount of manipulative and misleading green washing involved, and that the work of many of the people and companies involved in toxics limitation and remediation is limited or compromised because such work is almost always restricted to one enterprise and tailored to maximize the returns to that enterprise rather than to maximize compliance and serve the larger good of regions and communities. As National Geographic says, “Communities and environmentalists have long complained about lax enforcement of hazardous waste regulations, both by the federal government and state governments. Meanwhile, many corporations argue the regulations are too strict and lobby Congress to soften or remove certain rules.” It still happens everyday and in the Trump administration the petrochemical industry has a willing partner.

As well, the line between production and disposal is a blurred one, because the emission by-products during the industrial process as themselves are also a form of waste.

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Photo Credit: Transparency International

It is therefore not uncommon for whistleblowers to seek ways to bring polluters to account. To take a couple of recent examples: whistleblowers exposed failures in performance by shale oil and gas companies in Saskatchewan in 2017, including, according to the Toronto Star’s Robert Cribb, “serious infractions, failed safety audits, daily H2S readings beyond provincial air quality standards and a death in 2014.”. In the U.S., whistleblowers forced the U.S. government to bring a $90 billion dollar lawsuit against four of the country’s largest chemical companies – Dow, BASF, Beyer and Huntsman – for selling isocyanate chemicals while knowing and concealing their serious adverse health impacts from the EPA. Ecowatch says that exposure “to isocyanate can irritate the skin and mucous membranes, cause chest tightness and difficult breathing. Isocyanates also include compounds classified as potential human carcinogens and is known to cause cancer in animals.” This story is so common there is a small library of books written about it.

Putting the waste where it won’t be regulated

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Mexican oil refinery: low regulations, low wages

Finally, there is still another super-profitable sector of this business that facilitates outcomes that are seriously damaging to the environment and to people that is engaged with moving enterprises from high-regulation and relatively high-wage locations to low or no regulation and low-wage locations – such as moving refineries from Sarnia to Mexico, or moving plastics production from Detroit to China or Vietnam. The outsourcing of both jobs and toxics is a particularly nasty enterprise, and there is a lot of it going around, and a great deal of money is being made by the firms that facilitate the transfer.

But that story we will leave for another time.

Detroit 20Every single one of these types of waste disposal enterprises, ranging from irresponsible to criminal, fly in the face of the basic proposition that the best mitigation is, first of all, achieved by massively reducing waste at source. This involves not only better technologies of emission control, but more fundamentally, a massive transformation across the chemical industry from toxic to green processes and products. For that to happen, we will need massive government regulation, including polluter-pay policies; an end to all types of subsidies to toxic petrochemical enterprises; and massive economic incentives to green enterprises, in chemical production and in waste disposal and remediation, to change the chemical economy. If we want to rescue our biosphere, these are steps we will have to take, and soon.

At the same time, however, we are also faced daily with what to do with toxic waste arising from our industrial and consumer activities. And here we will never make big enough changes unless we build an empowered legislative, judicial and policing apparatus to make sure that waste is properly disposed of, not dumped in places that devastate poorer communities and unprotected land, and, eventually whether we like it or not, blows back on all of us in myriad and far reaching ways.

So let’s get on with it. Let’s reclaim the earth.

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Renewal on reclaimed land in Southwest Detroit