Something stinks in ‘Paper City’: Kalamazoo residents push back on legacy of industrial pollution

Editor's note: This story is part of Southwest Michigan's Second Wave's On the Ground Kalamazoo series.

Margaret Perkins, 56, who goes by the nickname Peggy, used to have the kind of house where her family would gather to celebrate special occasions. “It just made sense,” she says since the home where she lives in Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood has a spacious backyard, a barbecue “and even a little swimming pool,” which made it a perfect place for the family to gather.

When Perkins' eldest daughter was graduating from Kalamazoo Central in 2010 at the end of another busy school year, it seemed like a no-brainer to Perkins that she would host her daughter's graduation open house at their Northside home. Perkins rented canopies and outdoor furniture, invited family and friends, and fired up the barbecue for what was supposed to be a day of celebration. 

Instead, the carefully planned family gathering was ruined by an uninvited guest — a disgusting smell so strong that it made the air outside her home unbearable to breathe.  Perkins was forced to abandon the backyard as her guests retreated indoors on the warm summer day to escape the fumes.

One of Perkin’s neighbors described the smell to Second Wave as “like rotten eggs, dead bodies, burning trash.” 

Emissions from Graphic Packaging are visible from the Northside of Kalamazoo.“As a kid growing up we always had the smell — that’s just the way life was, " Perkins says over the phone in an interview in early October. “We accepted it as a way of life” 

Now, a recent health study by the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS) confirmed what many residents had suspected for years — that the foul odor plaguing their neighborhood for generations is more than just unpleasant, it can have dire implications for human health. 

Parker says that she no longer feels comfortable having family over to her home after the report confirmed that the pungent chemical smell, which many have been breathing in every day for decades, could be having long-term effects. Perkin says that both of her daughters, who spent much of their childhood years playing outside in the neighborhood, suffer from exercise-induced asthma, a condition that causes difficulty breathing when exercising.

Now Northsiders working alongside home-grown environmental activists, concerned parents, and Kalamazoo residents from other parts of town, are pushing back against that legacy of industrial pollution which for so many generations has been a part of life in Kalamazoo.

Tyler Dancer speaking with residents about the need for accurate information regarding emissions. Tyler Dancer, one of Perkins’ Northside neighbors, is one such activist. A Kalamazoo Public Library employee, and musician with ties to the Detroit techno scene, Dancer is the fourth generation of his family to live on Kalamazoo’s Northside. He still owns the house his great-grandparents built in the neighborhood more than a hundred years ago. They moved to the burgeoning community of Kalamazoo in the 1860s which at the time offered one of the only schools in the area where Black children could get an education. 

“This place is considered a homestead for us,” says Dancer as he reflected on his family’s long history in the area.

“Growing up here it's like, you just think that’s how things are.”

For those who have grown up in Kalamazoo, It’s easy to forget that factors relating to segregation were intentional. Redlining in Kalamazoo can be traced back to the mid-20th century when discriminatory lending was prevalent in the United States. This practice involved the systematic denial of financial services, particularly mortgage loans, to residents of certain neighborhoods, primarily those inhabited by Black families and other minority groups which were deemed “hazardous” on early zoning maps of the city.

The practice was reinforced by the federal government's Home Owners' Loan Corporation (HOLC) in the 1930s, which assigned risk grades to neighborhoods, with red indicating the highest risk, leading to the practice being known as “redlining.”

This led to disinvestment in redlined areas perpetuating racial segregation and economic disparities in areas like the Northside. While explicit redlining practices are no longer legal, their legacy continues to influence housing and economic inequalities in Kalamazoo and many other American cities today.

The legacy of zoning decisions and subsequent development is visible from almost every part of Kalamazoo’s Northside neighborhood. A massive paper mill, operated by multinational paper and packaging company Graphic Packaging International, is located at 1500 N. Pitcher Street, right next door to the Kalamazoo Water Reclamation Plant (KWRP). 

Sunrise near the Graphic Packaging facility.The hulking industrial structures tower over the green lawns and backyard swing sets of their residential Northside neighbors. The paper mill’s presence there is such a part of life that locals have grown accustomed to the sight of clouds of emissions that spew out of the facility’s industrial chimneys ranging in color from snow white to stormy gray. 

“My uncle had stage four kidney cancer. My grandmother had emphysema and lung cancer. My uncle who lived here for 70 plus years had boils on his neck”, says Dancer.

Now, many longtime residents with similar issues have expressed uncertainty about where to go or who to talk to about their health concerns. 

As word about the health study spreads through the community, questions about the poor air quality and its long-term health effects, particularly on children, have begun to raise alarm. A group of concerned parents of Kalamazoo Public School students recently formed Kalamazoo Parents for Clean Air and have begun petitioning the KPS Board of Education to install air monitors at KPS schools, several of which are near the plant. 

“Growing up, everyone had asthma… we used to collect inhalers like they were Pokémon” recalls Dancer while walking through the neighborhood in early September. He stopped often to greet neighbors, say hello, and point out air monitors intended to measure hydrogen sulfide emissions installed around the neighborhood, including one at Krom and Prouty Park, a three-minute walk from the factory and wastewater plant

While at the park, another Northside resident, Reno Waters, approached Dancer to ask questions about his health concerns.

An Envirosuite air quality monitor located near Krom and Prouty Park on the Northside.Waters says he knew that his son’s school had not been allowing the children out to play during recess lately, but he hadn’t known why. Waters, who was not familiar with the MDHHS health report and its advisory to stay indoors, said that he had first learned of the community's concerns around air quality when he saw one of his neighbors being interviewed on the local news. Waters lives just a few hundred feet from Krom & Prouty Park where an Envirosuite meter has routinely shown levels of hydrogen sulfide emissions several times that of the EPA recommended limit. Other air monitors at sites around the city including schools and hospitals have also shown elevated levels of emissions.

Several other facilities that service children, the elderly, or pregnant women, all of whom are more likely to be negatively affected by chemical exposure, are less than a mile away from the Graphic Packaging facility, including Lincoln International Studies School, Paterson Family Health Center, Mount Zion Baptist Church, and LaCrone Park where the city recently installed a new splash pad for children to play on during the heat of the summer months. There are no signs or posted information to inform the public about the potential health effects of long-term exposure to hydrogen sulfide or other chemicals in the area.

How did we get here?

An abundance of trees and waterways makes Kalamazoo County an ideal place for papermaking. The first paper mill was founded in Kalamazoo in 1867, and in the following decades, the industry grew, becoming a major part of the local economy. By the late 1800s, Kalamazoo was producing so much paper that it had earned the moniker “The Paper City.”

The success of Kalamazoo’s paper industry came with grave costs, however, as large swaths of the Western District of Michigan were contaminated with hazardous chemical pollutants and later declared superfund sites by the EPA. Kalamazoo County was especially damaged by paper mill polluters, and the Kalamazoo River became polluted with hazardous chemicals.

“It has always been known that paper mills [are] great polluters, and many older citizens of Kalamazoo probably have vivid memories of the pungent smell given off by the river as it carried the waste products of various mills downstream,” according to research published on the Kalamazoo Public Library’s website,

During the 1970s as awareness about pollution spread and the environmental movement began to push for more regulations that would hold polluting companies accountable, paper mill corporations and their various corporate owners began a process of buy-outs, consolidations, and mergers. Many local mills changed hands and names over the years, including what is now the Graphic Packaging facility.

A legal complaint filed by residents as part of a class action lawsuit against GPI and the City of Kalamazoo alleges that this process ultimately allowed many corporate polluters to avoid accountability for the mess they had left behind.

The ties between Graphic Packaging and ‘The Paper City’ run deep. The paper mill facility is over 150 years old and was occupied by several other companies before Graphic Packaging eventually took over the property in 2000. Michael Doss, the company’s CEO, is from the Kalamazoo area and graduated from Western Michigan University. 

In 2019 the Michigan Department of Great Lakes, and the Environment (EGLE) and Graphic Packaging International entered into an enforcement order that required GPI to pay a fine of approximately $100,000 for odor and permitting violations as well as agree to abide by an odor minimization plan. One part of that plan involved installing a network of sensors, often referred to by their brand name, Envirosuite, to monitor levels of hydrogen sulfide-causing odors around the mill property. 

Matt Smith, Collection Development Specialist at the Kalamazoo Public Library, demonstrates how to locate and read air quality monitors.The City of Kalamazoo has also installed its own set of sensors. Since their installation, those air monitors have routinely shown levels of hydrogen sulfide well above the EPA’s recommended exposure limit of 1.4 parts per billion at sites around the community including near playgrounds and hospitals. 

On Graphic Packaging’s website, the company says that the Envirosuite monitors “provide helpful data signals” but that they are “not precision tools and tend to overestimate the (hydrogen sulfide) concentration…” The monitors can produce false readings, or false positives, which are sometimes caused by battery malfunctions or “temporary influences in the environment” like how much traffic is nearby, according to the website. 

In November 2020, the Kalamazoo City Commission met to discuss awarding a multi-year, multi-million dollar tax break to Graphic Packaging as part of a deal to help the company expand its Pitcher Street facility. Residents who had been raising concerns about the company’s emissions and its impacts on community health called into the meeting in force leaving more than two hours worth of comments overwhelmingly opposed to the tax break and proposed expansion. 

“This is a public health crisis and should be treated as such by Graphic Packaging, the city of Kalamazoo, EGLE, and the EPA,” said Brandi McClinton, a longtime resident who has been urging the city to take action on this issue for years.

At the request of McClinton, Dr. David Ansell, the senior vice president for community health equity at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago, also called to leave comments at the commission meeting. Dr. Ansel spoke about the dangers facing the community from hydrogen sulfide exposure and explained how the chemical was harming the air quality in the Northside community and causing more respiratory problems in a specific area of Kalamazoo — the 49007 zip code. 

Ansell also pointed out that the asthma rates in 49007, an industrially zoned area with a predominantly Black population, are five times higher than those seen in the nearby, predominantly White, 49008 ZIP code. Dr. Ansell confirmed that the Northside ZIP code has the highest asthma prevalence in the region and also the highest hospitalization rates for asthma in Kalamazoo. 

Kalamazoo's Graphic Packaging facility is located at 1500 Pitcher St.Despite community objection, Graphic Packaging completed work on the mill expansion in 2021 and installed a new four-story paper machine at the plant. Output from the new machine, known as K2, has helped make Graphic Packaging International the largest producer of recycled paperboard in North America. 

“Investments like the one we're making now ensure that we will be here operating for another 100 years,” Graphic CEO Michael Doss said in a video posted to Linkedin about the expansion.

The Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes and the Environment (EGLE), which regulates the state’s air and water quality, has cited Graphic Packaging for a dozen odor violations since 2014. These violations are a breach of state law and the maximum fine that the department can legally levy for these violations is no more than $10,000 per day. Graphic Packaging International, a multinational corporation that has over 130 facilities in countries across the world, is valued at nearly $7 billion.  

During several public hearings that EGLE held to gather input from the public, residents have argued that the fines are a trivial punishment given the amount of harm GPI’s emissions have caused them.

Treatment can easily run into tens of thousands of dollars each year for conditions like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), another respiratory disease common among residents. That burden can be enormous, especially for families in communities like the Northside, where the median household income is just $23,000 a year, about half that of the city of Kalamazoo overall, according to data from the US Census Bureau.

Matt Smith, Collection Development Specialist at the Kalamazoo Public Library, talks with Tyler Dancer, Northside resident.“You should be charging them millions of dollars,” said Deann Winfield at an EGLE public hearing last December to elicit comments from the greater Kalamazoo community about a proposed consent order with GPI.

Winfield is part of the class action lawsuit suing the city of Kalamazoo and Graphic Packaging on behalf of the estate of her 17-year-old daughter Laprace who passed away after suffering a severe asthma attack which Winfield says was triggered by a lifetime of exposure to poor air quality in the neighborhood.

MDHHS Health Study

After three years, the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services finally released the results of its health consultation in May. The study confirmed hydrogen sulfide and other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) as the sources of odors affecting the neighborhoods.

Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas that has a strong rotting odor that can be smelled by most people even at low levels. High levels of hydrogen sulfide have been shown to irritate the eyes, nose, and throat, make breathing more difficult, and trigger asthma attacks among other symptoms, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The report concluded that “a lifetime of exposure to levels of hydrogen sulfide measured in the air in communities close to GPI and KWRP could result in an increased risk of nasal irritation, such as discomfort or inflammation, in addition to odors causing temporary health effects.” 

MDHHS says that it was first “alerted to complaints by residents in the Northside and Eastside neighborhoods of Kalamazoo regarding foul odors and negative health symptoms.”

“Individuals who are sensitive to odors may experience temporary health effects … in addition to respiratory effects. People with asthma or other respiratory conditions may experience airway irritation when strong odors are inhaled.” 

The study recommends “staying indoors and avoiding outdoor physical activity when environmental odors are noticeable for community members with existing respiratory problems or sensitivity to odors.”

In response to the MDHHS study, the City and County of Kalamazoo released a joint statement in May. City of Kalamazoo Public Services Director & City Engineer James J. Baker said that the city considers the public’s concerns about air quality a “top priority” and added that “Kalamazoo remains steadfast in efforts to address the presence of gasses and their odors in air readings throughout the city.”

In that same statement the city listed several steps they have taken to reduce emissions from the KWRP, the wastewater treatment plant which is owned and operated by the city, including installing the Envirosuite monitors and assembling an “Odor Task Force” to examine the issue and make recommendations for solutions.

Public Response

In light of the report’s findings, EGLE held a public hearing at Mount Zion Baptist Church in May to discuss the results of the study, but many Northside and Eastside residents still seem to be unaware of the situation. Peggy Perkins says that while she went to the meeting at Mt. Zion, it was poorly attended and that representatives from Graphic Packaging had not volunteered to answer the residents' questions.

Other neighbors confirmed to Second Wave that they had not been informed by the City of Kalamazoo, EGLE, or MDHHS about the results of the report and what it could mean for the health of themselves and their families. 

“Why isn’t there information posted in the barber shops, the beauty salons, the corner stores — places that people actually go?” Perkins wondered out loud during a phone interview in early October. She suggested putting up yard signs with information about who to contact with health questions or concerns, or going door to door to inform neighbors - a task that has until now been left up to unpaid community members to organize.

Tyler Dancer at Krom and Prouty Park.In light of the results of the health study, Graphic Packaging issued the following statement: “We care deeply about the community’s health and safety and have been taking action to improve air quality in Kalamazoo for more than a decade. We have invested millions of dollars in facility improvements and monitoring to address air quality surrounding our facility and the neighboring Kalamazoo Wastewater Treatment Plant.” 

GPI says they have invested millions of dollars in “upgrades” that “have reduced hydrogen sulfide concentrations by 81%, to levels six times below the state’s standard” and “will continue to build on those enhancements alongside city leaders and state and federal regulators to promote the health and well-being of our neighbors.”

For residents like Perkins, these statements have provided little comfort.
“We have people on the street that have had to buy air purifiers” and “go for emergency treatments and pay out of their pocket,” she said. The company says they “have spent millions of dollars” on this issue, but “we're not even being offered air cleaners, or purifiers”. 

Armed with The truth

Now, for Kalamazoo residents who have been forced to accept exposure to industrial pollution as part of their daily lives for far too long, things may be starting to change. Thanks to the tireless work of local activists like Dancer and McClinton, and armed with the long-awaited results of the MDHHS health study to back up their claims, Northside residents may finally be getting their day in court. 

Sunrise near the Graphic Packaging facility.Citizens including Dancer, McClinton, and Parker, have signed on to a class action environmental justice lawsuit targeting Graphic Packaging, the City of Kalamazoo, EGLE, the EPA, and others for what they say is a blatant disregard for the health and human rights of their community. 

In the most recent round of disagreements between the city, citizens, and the corporation, GPI has filed a request with the city to modify their permitting capacities, which, according to residents, would allow them to legally increase their emissions of several different chemicals. Through a spokesperson for the company, Graphic denies this claim, saying that the permitting changes requested would not result in higher emission limits but rather accommodate existing infrastructure already at the mill.

In a heated exchange over Zoom on the evening of Thursday, Oct. 4, Kalamazoo residents unanimously voiced their disapproval of the proposed permitting changes.

More than a dozen people called in to leave comments during the meeting. The speakers were universally opposed to the approval of the permitting changes, and many expressed frustration at EGLE representatives who they feel have failed to adequately protect them from the harmful effects of environmental degradation in the neighborhood. 

“They just want to pay us to shut up and leave, but I don’t want to leave.” 
Dancer says when asked what residents and activists like himself would like to see done for the neighborhood. 

Tyler Dancer“This is our cultural cradle. This is where the alleged American dream started for many of us. To ask us to leave is to displace us, to ask us to dismantle our culture," he says.

So, what do residents want to see done? Some are hoping for payments to help alleviate the crushing weight of medical bills or to allow them the ability to relocate somewhere new.

For others, like Dancer, the answer is simple: close the factory, clean up the pollution, and finally take responsibility for the systemic forces that have taken advantage of this vulnerable community for far too long. 

Public Comment

You can leave a public comment regarding the proposed permit expansions until midnight on October 31. Comments on the proposed air permit and enforcement action may be submitted in the following ways:
  1. By email to EGLE-AQD-PTIPublicComments@Michigan.gov.
  2. By voicemail by calling 517-284-0900.
  3. In writing to Permit Section Manager, EGLE, AQD, P.O. Box 30260, Lansing, Michigan 48909-7760.
Additional information about the proposed permit and enforcement action is available on the Michigan.gov website
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Read more articles by Caroline Bissonnette.

Caroline grew up in the Winchell neighborhood and graduated from Kalamazoo Central High School in 2011. She got her start in journalism in Second Wave’s On The Ground community correspondents program as a contributor for the Vine neighborhood. By shining a light on the people working to implement solutions to local issues she hopes to amplify important voices in our midst which are often overlooked.