April 27 2011 12:00 AM

GM Grand River Assembly Plant investigates moldy paint smell


Marney Turner of Lansing was at Moores
River Park south of downtown with her young son at 3:30 p.m. on a recent
April afternoon. She fled the park after 10 minutes.

With the return of warm weather, Turner
and other residents of Lansing’s near south side are going outside for
some fresh air, only to be slammed with a sour smell variously described
as “paint,” “chemical,” “heavy exhaust,” “ammonia or cat pee,” “moldy”
and “a weird mix of organic and synthetic.”

“It literally burns my throat at times,”
Turner said. The on-and-off smell was back when she went to the park
around 5 p.m. 10 days later.  “The smell was very bad,” she said. “My mom was with me and said it was burning her eyes.”

For about a year, General Motors has been
looking into conditions at the painting facility in its Grand River
Assembly Plant just north of Moores River Park, according to GM
environmental engineer Kim Essenmacher. GM is testing the water used to
clean the two paint booths at the plant. 

“We’re fairly certain it is from our water,” Essenmacher said.

GM plans a complete flush of the paint shop’s water system in June, while the plant is down for retooling.

A fix can’t come too soon for many
residents in the Moores River Park and REO Town area. The number of
official complaints about the smell to the state’s Department of
Environmental Quality shot up from one in 2009 to nine in 2010,
according to DEQ environmental engineer Bob Byrnes. 

“They describe it as musty, mildewy, or it smells like paint solvent,” Byrnes said.

Brandy Jackson of Lansing was gardening
at her grandmother’s house adjoining Moore’s River Park, the epicenter
of the stink, on one of the year’s first warm days, April 13. She said
the smell wafts frequently over her grandmother’s house.

“It’s like your dog went to the bathroom, and the sun hit it,” Jackson said. “You could just taste it in the air.” 

A few blocks away, Lansing resident Jim
Alfredson was washing his windows. The nasty smell battled with the
aroma of bacon frying inside Alfredson’s house.

“It’s a musty, moldy smell, a nasty earth
smell and a chemical smell combined, “Alfredson said. “I just got home
an hour ago and it’s really bad, driving down Washington [Avenue].”

Alfredson said he’s noticed the smell, on and off, for “about nine months to a year.”

“When it gets bad, it’s really bad,”
Alfredson said. “It’s like you can’t breathe, almost. It’s been getting
more worse and more frequent.”

The smell has also been reported further
east, downwind of the GM plant. Elisabeth Weston, director of EC3 Child
Care Center at 1715 W. Malcolm X Street (formerly Main Street), south of
I-496, said several parents have complained about an “ammonia or cat
pee” smell in the parking lot when dropping their kids off in the
morning or picking them up at night. Weston said she was concerned
because that kind of smell is sometimes associated with meth labs, but
the staff and parents haven’t found any sign of meth cooking nearby. The
smell, and especially its note of paint, has residents worried about
toxic emissions.

“Clearly something that smells that bad cannot be safe to breathe,” Turner said.

Paints and solvents contain dozens of
volatile organic compounds, of VOCs, some of which “may have short- and
long-term adverse health effects,” according to the U.S. Environmental
Protection Agency.

GM’s Grand River Assembly plant spewed
195.68 tons of VOCs in 2007 and 241.33 tons in 2008, according to the
most recent data from MDEQ.

The DEQ’s Byrnes said the Grand River
plant has received one notice of violation since it went on line in
2001, but only for “a reporting issue.”

“They do have limits, and they are in compliance with those limits,” Byrnes said.

The south side stink recalls a long,
bitter battle over lacquer and paint emissions from GM’s old Verlinden
Plant, formerly Fischer Body, and Craft Centre on the west side of town,
during the 1980s and 1990s. Both plants have since been razed.

James Clift, policy director at the
Michigan Environmental Council, worked on the April 23, 2002, agreement
in which the Westside Neighborhood Association agreed not to appeal a
permit to increase emissions at the Craft Centre.

Clift said that hard-to-regulate multiple
sources from GM were a problem then, and so was antiquated equipment at
the Verlinden plant, built in 1929. The MEC hasn’t looked into the odor
in South Lansing and hasn’t fielded any complaints. Clift said the
Grand River Assembly Plant, built in 2001 with the best available
emission control technology, was “fairly state of the art” when it went
on line.

“When they did the initial permitting for
the facility, they looked at the levels, and looked at where the
residents are around the facility, to make sure there’s not going to be a
toxic exposure that would cause a health problem,” Clift said.

Both nuisance and injury to health from
air pollution are barred by state law. DEQ’s Rule 901 prohibits
emissions of air contaminants that cause “injurious effects to human
health or safety” or “unreasonable interference with the comfortable
enjoyment of life and property.”

Byrnes said he walked around the area
“eight or nine times” last year and again last month, but didn’t find an
“unreasonable” smell.

“I haven’t come across it when it’s been, what I thought, rose to that level,” Byrnes said.

From almost any direction, it’s easy to
spot the paint shop at the Grand River Assembly Plant. Sandwiched
between the giant body shop to the south and the “pearly gates,” or
now-idle Oldsmobile administration building, to the north, the GM paint
shop is the only building in the complex that bristles with dozens of
vents and stacks. (A fourth building, the largest in the complex, is
Vehicle Assembly, to the west.)

Inside the facility’s two paint booths,
about 350 to 375 cars are painted on a production day. Water circulates
through the booths in “huge amounts,” according to Essenmacher. After
capturing particles of paint, the booth water is treated at the plant,
held in one big tank and recirculated back to the booths or piped to a
municipal water treatment plant.

“Sometimes when you have a down time, the water isn’t used as much, and we don’t drain the entire system,” Essenmacher said.

“That’s the first thing you think of when
you think of musty or mildew, is stagnant water, so that’s one of the
areas they’ve tried to change some things,” Byrnes said.

Essenmacher said GM emptied, cleaned and
flushed the tank last year. “We’re still getting complaints. We believe
that that water has, or had, some type of upset to it,” she said.

The “upset” could be a bacterial invasion
of the type that makes kitchen rags sour, on an industrial scale, but
tests aren’t conclusive, according to GM.

Essenmacher said the moldy paint smell,
uncharacteristic of paint shops, has been a puzzler. “Everybody knows
we’ve had odor problems in the past, but this is a new one for us,” she

GM’s next move, according to Essenmacher,
is take advantage of six weeks of downtime from June to mid-July, when
the plant will retool for a new job, and do a complete flushing and
cleaning of “every bit of water in the place, all at once.” Usually,
parts of the system are flushed while others are still in operation.

Essenmacher warned that the smell might get intense for a few days during the flush.

“Hopefully, that will resolve the situation,” Essenmacher said.