As I explored campus those first few daunting and lonely weeks of college, I discovered the Nichols Arboretum. A patch of historic forests and prairies sitting in the center of Ann Arbor, it’s arguably the most beautiful part of the city and a rare peek at what the area may have looked like 300 years ago. I’ve spent many of my days watching the wildlife scamper through the grass and fly about the trees and underbrush as I do my homework.

While each part of the Arb is beautiful, the stretch of the Huron River that gently runs along its northern border and throughout the rest of Ann Arbor is particularly spectacular. I have countless fond memories of dipping my toes into the cold water or watching the stars with friends to the sound of its gentle babbling. What I didn’t know about this beautiful river is that it hides a toxic secret.   

From the ‘60s through the ‘80s, 850,000 pounds of the chemical dioxane was improperly dumped by Gelman Sciences on their property in the outskirts of town. Long-term exposure to dioxane can lead to liver and kidney damage and can cause cancer. This toxic pool, now known as “the plume,” threatens Ann Arbor’s access to clean drinking water.   

Floating under Ann Arbor in its groundwater, the plume has pushed the city to shut down more than 100 private drinking wells. The city has also become increasingly worried that the plume will reach Barton Pond, where the city gets its water and where trace amounts of dioxane were detected earlier this year. There are currently “virtually undetectable levels” of dioxane in Ann Arbor’s drinking water (which is why I now steal water from my roommates Brita). The problem will be one the city grapples with for decades.  

Gelman, now Pall-Gelman, is undertaking a process to minimize the spread of the pollution, with their level of effectiveness being described as “the least amount possible” by former Ann Arbor City Councilmember Chuck Warpehoski, D-Ward 5. The city has filed for the plume to be designated as a Superfund site in order to acquire more funds for the cleanup, a lengthy process to say the least.

When I learned of this vagrant threat to the Huron, I was shocked by not only how little was being done to stop it but also by how little punishment had been doled out to the polluter. It was unfair for the city having to beg for a company’s illegally disposed mess to be cleaned up. What seemed fair to me was to make Pall-Gelman pay to restore the groundwater to the way it was before they ruined it for everybody.  We teach children to clean up after themselves, so why aren’t corporations held to the same standard? 

While Ann Arbor is forced to struggle with the pollution of its water, natives of Southwest Detroit’s Mexicantown can’t escape the reeking air pollution that fills their homes. Residents of this tourist and transportation hotspot, with the Ambassador Bridge right around the corner, have their air contaminated by toxic pollutants released from 150 sites. It is the most polluted section of the most polluted ZIP code in the U.S.

The sky over Mexicantown is filled with chemicals released from coal and gas-powered power plants, the Marathon oil refinery, a steel mill and a wastewater treatment plant. The toxic chemicals being dumped into their community has decreased the air quality so severely that natives are three times more likely to be hospitalized with asthma than the average Michigander and face significantly increased rates of cancer and respiratory diseases. 

Instead of investing in cleaning the community, Detroit’s government has chosen to add another source of pollution to the mix. After destroying major parts of the historic neighborhood to build the new, six-lane Gordie Howe International Bridge, even more light, sound and air pollution will stream into the community. Detroiters, like in Ann Arbor, are left with almost no recourse to fight the dumping of toxic chemicals into the resources they need to survive. This lack of rights is caused by the basic legal document that should ensure them: the United States Constitution.

While the Constitution promises the right to life, it gives people no rights to the elements needed to live: clean air and water.  It is a nonsensical legal paradox that keeps marginalized and prominent communities alike from using the courts to assert their basic human rights. With a Congress that has passed no major environmental legislation in decades, the Constitution might offer the only viable solution to a problem that is costing thousands of Americans their lives.  

America’s Constitution is one of the most important documents in human history, but even so, it seems like the Founding Fathers were in a hurry to get it done.  It is one of the shortest national constitutions and is riddled with spelling errors, like “Pensylvania. Written hundreds of years before conservation and ecology were concrete concepts, the writers also neglect to mention the environment, with all the power the government has to regulate it coming indirectly from the Commerce Clause. This is in stark contrast to almost any other nation, with 177 of the 193 United Nations member states giving their people the right to the environment in their constitutions.

The effects of a constitutional right to the environment are far-reaching, forcing governments to more tightly regulate polluters and more strongly protect communities from pollution. Most importantly, a constitutional right to the environment gives people the power and standing in court to fight back against polluters.  

In Argentina, the once-heavily polluted Matanza River once ran red with the blood from the slaughterhouses that lined its banks, along with everything from mercury to oil.  The millions of people that live along its shores saw decades of pollution take a toll on their health. In 2004, citizens from “Villa Inflamable”, a city deeply affected by the overwhelming pollution, filed a lawsuit against the governments of Argentina and Buenos Aires and 44 businesses for damage to their health caused by the pollution of the river, and won.  Once named one of the most polluted places on Earth, the Matanza is still an industrial river, but the government of Argentina now works to ensure it gets a little cleaner every day.

People from The Netherlands, where the right to a survivable climate was secured in court, to the Ecuadorian Amazon, where communities are suing Chevron for over $9 billion for polluting the rainforest, have used their constitutional rights to protect themselves from corporations and their own governments. A constitutional right may very well be the solution to environmental injustice that runs rampant through our nation and especially our state. This would make courts the level playing field on which all Michiganders – from Ann Arborites, to Southwest Detroiters to those affected in Flint – could fight back against the state and federal governments on issues from the Line 5 pipeline to the constant corruption impeding justice for wrongfully poisoned communities.  A constitutional amendment for the environment is the best chance Americans have at ensuring their lives are not sacrificed for profit.

Riley Dehr can be reached at rdehr@umich.edu.

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