Madison Heights and SOCRRA resolve transfer site issue

By: Andy Kozlowski | Madison - Park News | Published June 6, 2017

MADISON HEIGHTS — Before SOCRRA can allow public dumping at its waste transfer site in Madison Heights, it must first address safety issues that were identified there by the city’s fire chief and building official.

These were among the terms agreed upon by SOCRRA — short for the Southeastern Oakland County Resource Recovery Authority — in voluntarily dismissing its lawsuit against the city May 17.

SOCRRA had originally sought a temporary injunction against the city in Oakland County Circuit Court, demanding that the city reopen the facility at 29470 John R Road, which had been padlocked following the discovery of more than 50 code violations — namely, the Fire Prevention and Protection Ordinance and the Dangerous and Unsafe Building Ordinance. Several violations present “immediate hazards” to anyone on the property, according to the fire chief and building official.  

According to Hugh Thomas, special environmental counsel to the city of Madison Heights, who represented the city in the case, SOCRRA must address the following issues:

• Unlocking the emergency exits.

• Replacing or repairing the exit lighting and signage.

• Adding the required number of fire extinguishers.

• Repairing the sprinkler system.

• Barricading the fuel tank in the back of the property, to protect against vehicles running into it.

• Evaluating and removing the unprotected and loose asbestos.

• Securing all open access to the building to keep out vandals.

At press time May 31, those first three items had been addressed, although the city had not yet inspected them to ensure they’re to the city’s satisfaction. There is also a concern about the structural integrity of the smokestacks; SOCRRA will have them evaluated, and then repaired or removed if needed.

The city removed the padlocks to allow repairmen into the facility to make the needed repairs. Once the safety issues are resolved, SOCRRA will be free to allow residents from its 12 communities — of which Madison Heights is not a member — to visit the site for public dumping.

The current members of SOCRRA are Berkley, Beverly Hills, Birmingham, Clawson, Ferndale, Hazel Park, Huntington Woods, Lathrup Village, Oak Park, Pleasant Ridge, Royal Oak and Troy.

The city also secured several other provisions at the hearing. SOCRRA agreed to remove all waste delivered to the site by the end of each day, or to store it in a covered container for removal the following day. SOCRRA also agreed to cease public dumping at the facility no later than Dec. 31 of this year. Also, city officials are free to inspect the property at any time and as often as they want.

“SOCRRA agreed to go ahead and do everything we (the city) wanted them to do,” Thomas said. “We feel it turned out well, and we got what we wanted. We’re happy.”

Robert Davis, attorney for SOCRRA, said via email that SOCRRA just wanted access to the transfer site.

“We agreed to the list because they are things we were planning to do anyways,” Davis said. “So the takeaway is this: We got immediate access to our facility to do the work we were going to do anyways, and we can open the services to the public just like we planned to do, and just like the (Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) said we could do.”

Madison Heights and SOCRRA go a long way back. The city was one of its founding members in 1951, until 1997, when the city found it could save between $1 million and $2 million a year by contracting directly with private waste haulers. The way Thomas recalls it, this resulted in SOCRRA expelling Madison Heights and refusing to work with the city in the future.

Nonetheless, SOCRRA continued to operate its facility in Madison Heights, even though the city was no longer a member. Previously, the building had operated an incinerator burning trash, which closed in 1988. From then until 2005, SOCRRA used the facility primarily to transfer waste, bringing garbage into the building from its 12 member communities, so it could be loaded into larger trucks and hauled off to SOCRRA landfills.

From 2005 onward, SOCRRA decided it could do this work at its second site in Troy, so the Madison Heights site went largely unused — except for in the fall, when leaves would be collected and brought to the site for transfer into larger trucks.

This past April, SOCRRA met with the city to discuss its plans to open the property to the public May 1. SOCRRA wants to move its communities on to a single-stream recycling system, which requires rebuilding its Troy facility and relocating certain functions to the Madison Heights site, which includes public dumping. That’s when the city identified the safety hazards at the site, padlocking it until repairs were made, which in turn led to SOCRRA’s lawsuit demanding immediate access.

Madison Heights Mayor Brian Hartwell said in an email that this latest exchange wasn’t a repeat of “past environmental wars,” but rather simply a matter of addressing safety issues. 

“SOCRRA was concealing a deadly combination of hanging asbestos, crumbling masonry, welded-shut exit doors, broken pavement, exposed utilities, and pits and tanks where you could fall into and probably never get out,” Hartwell said. “The city chose to immediately lock the gates and deny public entry until SOCRRA cleaned up its act.”

Mayor Pro Tem Mark Bliss said the city treated the situation the same way it would treat any code violation.

“To say that anyone achieved a victory is to say it’s two sides pitted against each other, and I get the historical context, but this council wasn’t the council that did those things in the past. This is just code enforcement, pure and simple,” Bliss said. “We identified an unsafe structure that was going to have members of the public inside; a search warrant was executed; and the end result is every single item we found that was deemed unsafe is getting fixed. That’s how it’s supposed to work, be it a commercial entity or residential home.

“I’m personally proud of how staff responded, and how our legal counsel reacted, and how we made sure this came to a speedy resolution so that the property can be made safe.”