News Story

Township Denies It Had Landfill Documents, County Records Say Otherwise

Citizen feels her right to information was infringed

Editor's note: This story was updated to reflect comments from a Salem Township official.

A resident of a township in southeastern Michigan thinks she was wrongly denied a request for township documents related to a proposed landfill expansion. Salem Township denied the Freedom of Information Act request, saying the information the requester asked for did not exist.

But records subsequently acquired from Washtenaw County show that the relevant documents do exist, and were in the township’s possession when the request was submitted.

Tracey Birkenhauer of Northville sent a FOIA request to Salem Township on March 25, 2016, requesting all documentation submitted to the township since 2010 regarding the expansion of the Arbor Hills landfill. The township and Washtenaw County have been mulling an expansion of the landfill, which has an estimated 15 years of capacity left.

After hearing nothing from the township by April 6, Birkenhauer made an inquiry, which generated a phone call from Anne Alexander, a building coordinator for the township. She said Birkenhauer’s emailed request had gone into a spam email folder.

The township then denied the request on April 12, saying the information Birkenhauer requested “does not exist.”

“My spidey sense went up when they said that there was no documentation — it’s simply not possible,” Birkenhauer said. “Something just didn’t seem right.”

Not long after this, Birkenhauer saw information related to the Washtenaw County Solid Waste Planning Committee, which referenced a letter sent to the county by a company called Advance Disposal. The letter asked that the county’s plan include adding more acreage to a proposed landfill expansion. (This information had also been obtained via a Freedom of Information request sent by another county resident.)

Birkenhauer contacted the county to get a copy of that letter, which was sent to her on the same day by Jeff Krcmarik of Washtenaw’s Environmental Health Division. She immediately noticed that a copy had been sent to Gary Whittaker, a township supervisor.

The letter was dated Feb. 9, 2015, or more than a year before Birkenhauer requested landfill-related documents. It was addressed to the county’s Water Resources Committee and signed by David Rettell, a manager for Advanced Disposal.

Whittaker did not respond to a request for comment.

Salem Township FOIA Coordinator Anne Alexander said the document from Washtenaw County was not found in any of its searches.

“That’s when I went, ‘you have got to be kidding me,’” said Birkenhauer, who noticed the supervisor’s name on the document. “They actually did have something. They had documentation, but they just didn’t give it to me.”

Advanced Disposal Services owns the Arbor Hills landfill, which has an agreement with both the county and township and pays hosting fees to both local governments.

Birkenhauer started the Stop Arbor Hills community group.

“I found out there was at least one piece of documentation,” she added. “I’m wondering if there are hundreds of pieces of documentation.”