March focuses on justice issues facing Detroiters

Sunday, October 4, 2015 - 6:03pm

DETROIT — Marching from Roosevelt Park to Hart Plaza, several groups rallied together to support each other’s various justice causes.

The Detroit March for Justice, hosted by the National Sierra Club and a variety of social justice and environmental groups, drew Sierra Club executives from around the country Saturday, including club President Aaron Mair.

Represented in the march were groups like the East Michigan Environmental Action Council, Water is Life, Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and others. Marchers carried signs calling for an end to fracking and water shutoffs. 

But many were there in defense of Detroit’s air, one of the pressing environmental issues in the area. One young boy wore a sandwich board the read: “Most polluted zip code: 48217.”

“(We have) all the other issues and then we have bad air,” said Rhonda Anderson, senior organizing representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign and Environmental Justice Program. “The bad air is killing us just as much as the other issues are killing us.”

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has identified several power plants in the area as the source of high sulfur dioxide levels and is working to reduce emissions at these plants to the safe level of 75 parts per billion.

The MDEQ is currently working on a State Implementation Plan to achieve proper air quality within the area that hasn’t attained safe air quality levels, including parts of southwest Detroit, running along the Canadian border and meeting the southern edge of Wayne County’s border.

The Environmental Protection Agency must approve this SIP or require a different plan.

The sources of the SO2 identified in the SIP are Carmeuse Lime and Stone, U.S. Steel, DTE's River Rouge Power Plant and  DTE Trenton Channel Power Plant. EES Coke was also identified as a source since it provides fuel to U.S. Steel.

The SIP calls for the plants to reduce emissions enough to bring the area to the safe SO2 amount; Carmeuse Lime is planning to build a higher smokestack to further disperse its emissions, for example.

While the modeling shows the individual plants at safe levels under these new guidelines, there is a possibility of an unsafe zone, or “hotspot,” when the plants combined are operating at full capacity.

Robert Irvine, a representative from the MDEQ, said this possibility is a worst-case scenario, and that he stands by his agency’s proposal. He added that the MDEQ still needs to reply to all public commentary — which closed Monday.

“The level of control at these facilities — we consider them to be adequate and that is our conclusion in our document at this point,” Irvine said in an interview.

While MDEQ members feel confident the EPA will agree to the plan, the Sierra Club’s Michigan Chapter and members of the community believe it doesn’t go far enough.

At a public forum held at River Rouge High School earlier this month, MDEQ representatives took public comments from anyone who had them, a step required in the SIP drafting process. Many Sierra Club members and people from the area spoke passionately about the need for an effective, long-term solution to the pollution, with some talking about their friends or family who became sick with asthma and other illnesses linked to air pollution.

Brad van Guilder, a representative from the Sierra Club, said the permits described in the SIP are not enough.

“This is a case where the MDEQ has the full legal authority to address this, they have the tools to be able to address it, they know how to do it,” he said in an interview. “They really need to step up and either do the right thing, or they need to cooperate with the EPA and implement a federal implementation plan as quickly as possible.”

At the march Saturday, attendees echoed these sentiments, with many people saying they were ready to see improvements after years of issues.

“We pray that Detroit stands up for everything that we are owed,” said Pastor Alonzo Bell through a microphone, leading a prayer in Roosevelt Park before the march began.

Mair, the Sierra Club president, marched with the group of about 400, leading the way and helping to hold a “Black Lives Matter” sign. Speaking at Hart Plaza at the march’s finish, Mair discussed Detroit’s environmental struggles in the context of all the city’s justice issues.

He compared Detroit to the town of Rock Ridge in “Blazing Saddles” — a movie where a governor attempts to displace town members to install a profitable rail line.

“This crime is no coincidence,” Mair said. “Now, in the wake of global climate change, this is the city that can create the green jobs; this is the city that can build the electric vehicles; this is the city that can create the wind turbines; this is the city with the workers who are ready to work.”