Clearing the air: Environmental justice in Detroit

Ruby Wallau/Daily
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By Ian Dillingham, Senior News Editor
and Will Greenberg, Senior News Editor
Published November 4, 2014

Early on a Saturday, students and faculty boarded a bus outside the University’s School of Public Health. The destination — Detroit.

However, this group wasn’t going to visit the tourist hotspots. While Eastern Market and the Renaissance Center were on the itinerary, these participants had signed up to see some of the most polluted and industrialized areas of the city, hear about the historic factors that brought the city to its current state and to learn about the public health concerns for residents in these areas.

“Detroit’s a challenging place — it’s an interesting place,” said Sociology Prof. Reynolds Farley, one of the trip leaders for the 2014 Tour of Toxic Sites, sponsored by the University’s Center for Occupational Health and Safety Engineering.

For better or worse, the city has for decades been used as a case study for some of society’s most serious economic and social concerns. From the collapse of the auto industry to the history of racial tensions, academics use Detroit as a model for other similar U.S. cities.

The annual tour seeks to provide future public health and social justice workers with a first-hand look at contemporary issues, reflecting the University’s growing involvement — both academically and socially — in the city in recent years.

As the bus and its 30 to 40 passengers left Ann Arbor, Farley began discussing the impact of the city’s history on the current environmental concerns.

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Sociology Prof. Reynolds Farley speaks to students while leading the Toxic Tour in Detroit. (Ruby Wallau/Daily)

The rise of an industrial giant

Founded as a trading post in the early 16th century, Detroit saw significant population and industrial growth starting in 1855 with the completion of two major projects — a railroad connecting the city to New York and Chicago and the completion of the locks at Sault Ste. Marie, putting Detroit in the position to utilize Michigan’s industrial resources — white pine, iron ore and copper — to become an industrial powerhouse.

The Civil War spurred demand for such industrial products, and the city grew from a population of 21,000 in 1850 to almost 300,000 by 1900.

The industrial boom marked the start of major pollution problems in the city and region. Long before the era of government regulation and oversight, manufacturers often simply dumped industrial waste into the Detroit River or let it soak into the ground around the plants that produced them. Some of those toxic effects can still be felt today.

But any industrial ‘boom’ of the 19th century pales in comparison with the growth of industry in the early 20th century as Detroit gave birth to the U.S. auto industry. The ‘Big 3’ automakers — Ford, General Motors, and Chrysler — all set up shop in the city.

In 1917, Ford Motor Co. began construction on its River Rouge Complex, the single largest industrial complex in the world at the time. At its height, it employed more than 100,000 workers and still operates in a limited capacity today, though it was sold by the Ford family and has been downsized due to environmental restrictions. The company now operates several modern plants in the surrounding area and in Dearborn. According to the Sierra Club, a national environmental preservation group founded in 1892, these plants produced over 600,000 pounds of toxic pollutants in 2010, contributing the “largest burden of environmental pollution” in Detroit.

General Motors opened a Cadillac assembly plant near Mexicantown in 1921 and later relocated to their Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly facility north of the city in 1985. The company purchased the iconic waterfront Renaissance Center in 1996 to serve as its world headquarters. According to the Sierra Club, the Hamtramck facility produced over 180,000 pounds of toxic releases and over 240,000 pounds of other waste in 2010.

Farley noted that recognizing the city’s history is vital to understanding its continuing struggles.

“People don’t spend a whole lot of time thinking about cities and how the history of cities, when homes were built and factories were built, how that influences the present,” Farley said. “But, they’re open to thinking about it; they seem to be interested.”

The grassroots movement

After a brief tour of downtown and lunch at Eastern Market, students and faculty boarded the Toxic Tour bus for the main event — a look at some of the most polluted and industrialized areas of the city.

Charles Stokes works for Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, an organization partnered with the University’s School of Public Health, and joined the bus tours to provide students with context from a local resident’s perspective.

Stokes highlighted the pollution in Detroit as an environmental justice issue. In his position, he works as an organizer spreading the word to afflicted neighborhoods about the dangers of various toxic sites and unite people to pressure the city to make changes.

Among the many locations on the tour’s itinerary were the Rouge Steel Plant, the Marathon Oil refinery, and the waste water treatment plant. Stokes explained how these locations contribute to carbon dioxide levels and other forms of air pollution, as well as producing harmful industrial byproducts, such as petroleum coke, during the process of refining raw tar sands — mostly imported from Alberta, Canada — into oil.

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A view of Zug Island from the Toxic Tour bus. (Ruby Wallau/Daily)

The tour also visited the Detroit municipal waste incinerator, a contentious topic in the city for years and known for its infamous smell. Stokes organized area residents to continually file odor complaints against the incinerator based on reports that the smell has caused people to feel nauseous and, in some cases, become more seriously ill.

Opened in 1986, the waste incinerator is the largest of its kind in the U.S., accommodating over 3,000 tons of garbage on a daily basis. Along with the long-standing debate over the plant’s odor, the facility also emits airborne substances, such as nitrogen oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide, which have created public health concerns in the community.

After the actions taken by residents and environmental groups, Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality brought suit against the private company that now owns the incinerator. In the past two weeks, the city passed a consent agreement mandating the operators update the incinerator’s air ducts to reduce the odor within two years or face a fine.

While the proceedings demonstrated the ability of community groups to help rectify environmental injustice in the city, the incinerator is only one of many such facilities that are worrisome to residents. Stokes said there is still plenty of work to be done, but that he is proud so far with the progress. Additionally, he said educating University students is a key part of ensuring solutions for the future.

“We stand on the shoulders of those who came before us and so I offer my shoulders for those who would like to stand on them,” he said. “When you have the ear of a bunch of ‘world-changers,’ what I mean is those students, their future’s not defined yet and so we’re going to help instill something that is based in justice and equality and participation of all peoples.”

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A bulldozer sits on a vacant lot in Oakwood Heights. In an effort to create a "buffer zone" around its refinery, Marathon Petroleum Co. has been purchasing and demolishing houses in the neighborhood — about 300 so far. (Ruby Wallau/Daily)

Environmental injustice

Historically, industry and residential areas of Detroit were built in close proximity to one another, as this made the most sense for workers who needed to commute. Despite a modern understanding of the environmental concerns today, Farley said it can be difficult both politically and financially to relocate people away from pollution sites.

Instead, residents and grassroots organizers are working to have industry more strictly regulated. So far, the results are mixed, as facilities such as the Marathon Refinery have pledged to reduce emissions, while at the same time continuing to increase their facility’s output.

According to a report from the Detroit Alliance for Asthma Awareness, rates of asthma in the city are three times the national average. Some have argued that Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency could be doing more to regulate industries.

Furthermore, the Sierra Club contends that the environmental impacts are not evenly distributed among the state’s population. Citing research from Natural Resources Prof. Paul Mohai, the report indicates that over 80 percent of African-American students attend school in the top decile of polluted areas in the state, as opposed to 44 percent of white students.

At the start of the auto boom in the 1920s, Detroit’s population was over 95 percent white. The middle-class thrived under the plethora of skilled manufacturing jobs. By the end of the 20th century, however, the demographics had undergone a massive shift. In 2010, Blacks made up over 82 percent of residents.

While middle class workers had the ability to move to the suburbs or leave the city entirely, less advantaged groups were left to deal with the fallout of years of environmental degradation.

“There were no incentives to cooperate on major issues, like economic development, transportation, education, or environmental protection,” Farley said. “The suburban communities went their own way and competed with the city and … city-suburban disputes often turned into nasty Black-white disputes.”

In 2013, Sierra Club Detroit referred to the environmental pollution in the city as a “human rights abuse” and “environmental injustice.” Grassroots organizations, such as Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, have taken on initiatives to improve underprivileged communities.

“Given the contamination of their immediate environments, these communities have inordinately high levels of asthma, cancer, neurological disorders and birth defects,” the Sierra Club report stated.

Delray resident Forest Hudson acknowledged that pollution is a major concern in his area.

“The area’s a dump, but I love it,” Hudson said. “I know there’s a lot of toxic waste.”

At the community center where he works, lines of smokestacks surround the soccer fields where children come for after-school activities. The air smells of sulfur and garbage.

“It’s just background,” Hudson said, referencing the close proximity of the industry.

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Marathon refinery, viewed from the fence line near Oakwood Heights (Ruby Wallau/Daily)

But he said people in the community are fighting back, despite a seeming lack of involvement from city officials. As Hudson puts it, people are “fighting for their livelihood” and there is an increasing effort to hold government officials accountable in remedying the concerns.

In addition to industry, Delray lies in the midst of major trucking and shipping routes near the U.S. terminal for the Ambassador Bridge, a major thoroughfare of U.S.-Canadian economic trade. As many as 9,000 trucks pass these checkpoints each day.

The city has passed anti-idling laws to prohibit trucks waiting near the bridge terminals from contaminating surrounding neighborhoods with air pollution, but these laws are rarely enforced by police. In addition, reports indicate that the approach to the Ambassador Bridge is plagued by delays.

Now, there are plans to expand such operations by opening a new bridge by 2020 to accommodate larger trade volume. While these expansions seek to increase the flow of traffic along one of the most important international trade rates, Hudson’s house sits on land needed to build the U.S. customs plaza.

He said the city plans to buy his house next year. Motioning to an image on the wall of the community center, he said there were originally plans to build a community for the displaced residents, but those plans fell through — the area proposed for housing was deemed more appropriate for expanding industry.

As for his community, Hudson said he’s unsure if their efforts to garner aid from the city will yield results.

“It’s only a matter of time before we know one way or another whether they take our concerns seriously,” he said.

Neighborhood negotiations

It’s no secret that Detroit made its mark as an industrial giant, and with industry comes pollution. However, as Detroiters argue, pollution in the city is no longer simply an environmental concern, but a social disparity as well.

The city’s population has shrunk from nearly two million at its height in the 1950s to about 700,000 today. Those that remain do so for a variety of reasons — some feel loyal to the city while others lack the resources to move elsewhere. Regardless, the shifting demographics mean that those responsible for creating a toxic environment are not the ones suffering from its effects.

The collapse of the auto industry and subsequent municipal bankruptcy have resulted in the downsizing or closure of some of Detroit’s most iconic facilities — such as Ford’s River Rouge plant — which are replaced with newer, decentralized production models. At the new Ford complex, environmental efforts are underway to limit emissions and protect water sources. The new facility boasts one of the largest “living roofs” in the world, using natural grasses and plants to reduce the plant's energy consumption — a promising effort toward increasing environmentally minded industry around the city.

Other companies have developed their own strategies for dealing with increasing environmental regulation.

In Oakwood Heights, a few residents are holding out against Marathon Petroleum Co., which has bought homes from over 300 residents — paying an average of $65,000 per home — as part of a plant expansion effort. By removing residents, the company can effectively increase its distance from residential areas, bypassing certain restrictions based around proximity to homes.

By simply refusing to sell their homes, these residents have been thrust into the middle of a debate that will likely continue for years to come. And, in a city that has historically faced some of the most impactful racial conflicts of modern U.S. history, the next chapter of such debate may not come in the form of protest and political uprising, but in the billows of smoke that have long symbolized Detroit’s industrial might.