Recent Posts

Former workers seek state investigation of Chrome Craft | Detroit Free Press on Astini News

Former workers at a shuttered plant in Highland Park are charging that the plant likely contaminated an adjacent neighborhood and possibly some urban farms in the area with a highly toxic carcinogen.

The major hazard is hexavalent chromium -- the same substance that contaminated tiny Hinckley, Calif., in an environmental case Erin Brockovich made famous. It was used to coat bumpers at the plant.

The plant, called Chrome Craft, has been cited over the past 20 years for 39 violations of city, state and federal laws regarding its discharges into Detroit sewers, its lack of a permit to store hazardous waste, improper storage of waste and failure to train workers, according to documents obtained by the UAW under the Freedom of Information Act. The NAACP, the UAW, environmental groups and workers are asking the state's Department of Environmental Quality to investigate.

The plant is owned by Flex-N-Gate, a company owned by Shahid Khan, an Illinois businessman who hopes to win approval this week from NFL owners to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars. The company denied knowledge of any leaks or violations.

Saad Bolos, 56, of Madison Heights worked at the plant for 17 years and described incidents of leaks to the Free Press, including a rooftop pipe that spilled what he believed was chromium onto snow in an alley that backs up to houses. "It was everywhere," he said.

It could be the first test of the DEQ's environmental justice policy, which pays special attention to hazards in poor areas.

Plant closed but concerns linger about toxic contamination

On Pilgrim Street, which runs behind the Chrome Craft plant in Highland Park, a yellow sign warns: "Children at play."

At least two homes on the street, whose backyards all face the plant, have swing sets. At one house, a gate stands open to the tiny alley. At others, there is no fence.

Former workers at the plant say that spills they witnessed likely contaminated the alley, and possibly the homes nearby.

Antwine Riggs said he worked at the plant for 13 years until it closed in 2009 and saw, three to four times a week, waste sludge from the operation spill off a conveyor onto the ground near the alley. Riggs said the equipment that moved the sludge broke often. Rain would wash the material off-site.

Pastor D. Alexander Bullock, whose church is near the plant, said he's concerned about the possibility that contamination with hexavalent chromium has affected soil in a wider area.

"There is an urban farm movement starting here, and this could be toxic to the land," he said. His church, Greater St. Matthew Baptist Church, has one of those farms. Bullock, also president of the Highland Park NAACP, said he's concerned about the health of both workers and residents.

At least six former workers have made allegations to the UAW, which represents workers at the closed plant. The UAW has examined dozens of documents over the past few months, said Chris Schwartz, a researcher with the union. A search of records found no evidence that there were ever cleanups at or near the site, he said.

On Friday, workers, the Highland Park and Detroit branches of the NAACP, and environmental leaders sent a letter to the state Department of Environmental Quality detailing problems at the plant and asking for inspections, and, if necessary, a cleanup.

"Our review of regulatory documents, as well as interviews with former employees, reveals a consistent pattern of environmental and safety problems at the plant, including releases of hazardous waste into the environment," the letter said in part.

A spokesman for the DEQ said Monday that the agency would send a team to the site to investigate.

"We will take appropriate response actions as necessary to protect the public health," spokesman Brad Wurfel said.

A former worker and safety committee chair at the plant, Saad Bolos, said workers raised issues about the safety of chemicals inside and outside the plant for many years. "We tried, but we couldn't accomplish a lot," he said. Employees feared that if they pushed too hard, the plant might close, he said.

The plant was closed about two years ago and its equipment moved out. It sits idle now, with a security guard on duty.

The letter hand-delivered to DEQ also alleges that the company's failure to formally close the plant, instead listing it as idled, was a way to avoid a post-closure inspection by DEQ, which could turn up problems requiring a cleanup.

In a statement Monday, the plant's owner, Flex-N-Gate, said: "We've immediately and fully investigated this claim. Flex-N-Gate Group has received no communication from the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, nor anyone else (including any civic leader) suggesting any environmental law violation at the Chrome Craft idled plant in Highland Park, including alleged leaks. Chrome Craft complies with all Michigan and federal environmental laws, including workers' health and safety and protection of the public."

On Wednesday, NFL owners are expected to vote on whether to allow Shahid Khan, Flex-N-Gate's owner, to buy the Jacksonville Jaguars team in Florida for $760 million. Khan, with a distinctive handlebar moustache, lives in Urbana, Ill., where he is known as a businessman and philanthropist who has helped fund academic programs on aging and health, according to recent news profiles related to the football purchase. The company took in $3 billion in revenue this year, according to Forbes magazine. Its other Michigan plants, which do metal stamping and plastics molding, are in Royal Oak, Warren, Battle Creek , Evart, Fowlerville, Grand Rapids and Ionia, according to the company's website.

Flex-N-Gate bought Chrome Craft in 2005. In a 2009 lawsuit, Khan said he was a partner in Chrome Craft dating back to 1993.

Four inspections at the plant from 1992 until its closure found 39 violations of environmental laws, according to documents gathered by the UAW. DEQ issued a letter of warning in 2008 listing 13 violations, including evidence of spills and open containers of hazardous waste outside the plant.

After one such spill, a state inspector noted that "melting snow and ice along with rainwater are causing the sludge to run onto the bare soil."

In March 2003, Detroit's Water and Sewerage Department reached an agreement with the plant after it found violations of a permit that allowed the plant to discharge into sewers. In November that year, the plant was fined $1,500 after an inspection showed a probe meant to monitor discharges had been removed. In 2004 and 2005, reviews by the city said the plant was continuously in violation and had significant noncompliance.

When the plant stopped operating in 2009, the City of Highland Park raised questions with DEQ about past spills and violations at the plant and what might be left behind. "I am confident they will do the right thing and if not, we will make sure they do," a DEQ district supervisor responded in an e-mail to the city. The DEQ asked the city to notify the agency when the plant was completely closed. It has never been completely closed. On Monday, a Flex-N-Gate truck pulled in and unloaded its contents inside the plant, but it was not clear what was in the truck.

DEQ has a new environmental justice policy, adopted under former Gov. Jennifer Granholm and designed to make sure that environmental complaints in poor communities are not ignored. The letter to the agency from civic leaders said: "Extra care must be taken to ensure the community isn't saddled with the legacy of a hazardous waste site for years to come."

DEQ spokesman Wurfel responded: "Our response is the same as it would be anyplace in the state."

Contact Tina Lam: 313-222-6421 or

What's on Your Mind...