Planet Detroit’s top 10 local environmental stories for 2019

1. Water shutoffs in Detroit continue

With activists sometimes alleging a “media blackout” on the subject, water was still being turned off for some of Detroit’s most vulnerable residents. This topic did receive some attention, although often it was strangely upbeat. Towards the beginning of the year, The Detroit News wrote that there was a “dramatic decline” in customers being targeted for shutoffs. But as the year went on, Bridge Magazine reported on shutoffs in thousands of homes, even in the heat of summer. Wayne State communication professor Rahul Mitra called the shutoffs “dystopian” and could “point to a deepening water crisis”, especially as it was a continuation of the mass shutoffs that began in 2014. Meanwhile, Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot opted to discontinue water shutoffs in that city, saying “Water is a basic human right.”

2. Oil and gas leaks at the Marathon refinery

At the beginning of February, a gas leak at the Marathon refinery in southwest Detroit raised alarm in Detroit, Dearborn, and other neighboring communities. This was followed by an oil vapor leak in September, which lead to protests from residents and environmental groups. Air monitoring samples taken in the 48217 zip code near refineries and other industrial polluters document elevated cancer- and asthma-causing pollutants. Many zip codes in Detroit, including 48217, show higher rates of asthma than the rest of the state. The nearby Marathon oil refinery received 13 violation notices from the state since 2013, turning the facility into a symbol of environmental injustice. The area was visited by Democratic presidential contenders Jay Inslee and Elizabeth Warren.m with the latter releasing a video of her visit with Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib. Meanwhile, activists push for change to air pollution regulations that account for cumulative exposure, instead of the chemical-by-chemical approach that is now used.

3. High waters kept Michigan on edge

The Great Lakes and Lake St. Clair experienced their highest recorded water levels this year, causing damage from Detroit’s Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood to Lake Michigan. Things aren’t likely to improve next year, with levels for many lakes still high going into winter. There’s a clear connection between the climate crisis and lake levels. “When you’re in wet periods, you start to get persistent, basin-wide extreme precipitation,” University of Michigan professor Richard B Rood told The Guardian. How long this particular wet period will last is unclear, but Michigan might need a dry year to return things to normal.

4. The Detroit incinerator closes

After years of a concerted effort from Detroit activists like Breathe Free Detroit, the incinerator at the I-75/I-94 interchange finally closed down. Since the 1980s, the facility had burned trash—much of it from the suburbs—in the middle of the city. In addition to its smell, the incinerator was also believed to contribute to high rates of asthma in the predominantly low-income, African American area where it stood. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center was planning on suing the facility for violations of the Clean Air Act at the time the decision was made to shut it down.

5. DTE’s Integrated Resource Plan meets with widespread criticism

DTE Energy faced withering criticism all year for its Integrated Resource Plan (IRP) with the Natural Resources Defense Council comparing it negatively to Consumers Energy’s IRP—which was strong on renewables where DTE’s was not—and Joseph Daniel from the Union of Concerned Scientists asking if itwas the “worst ever”, saying:

In all my years of reviewing IRPs the DTE IRP might be the worst. The only thing preventing me from using more definitive language is that I’m not entirely certain it qualifies as an IRP.

The IRP—which needs approval from the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) to move forward—faced another setback this month with an administrative judge pointing out flaws in the plan during an advisory ruling. This all comes on top of criticism of DTE’s response to recent power outages, arguments for public utilities, and questions about the charitable donations made by its foundation. The coming year is likely to be an interesting one for the company.

6. In battle on California on auto emissions, GM and FCA side with Trump

This year, Trump waged war against California’s right to enforce its own auto emissions standards, and some automakers, including Ford and Honda, sided with the state. Along with the administration’s withdrawal from the Paris Agreement and support for coal, this move has contributed to Trump being labeled a “carbonist” or someone who wants to deliberately slow the transition to clean energy. A number of states have sided with California to fight Trump’s rollback of the Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards that were tightened under Obama. Michigan is among these states, but GM and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles came out on Trump’s side. Whether or not states will be able to set their own emissions standards is still very much up in the air, but some speculate that electric vehicles could soon “render this fight moot”.

7. Radiation scare on the Detroit River

The collapse of a dock and riverbank this December at the Detroit Bulk Storage facility highlighted Detroit’s history of industrial pollution and an inadequate emergency response system. Formerly the home of Revere Copper, this site handled uranium for use in the Manhattan Project. Concerns about radiation from the site or toxic sediment from the riverbed getting into a Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) intake downstream raised ire among residents. So far, water tests from the river and intake haven’t shown elevated contamination or radiation, but the whole event has Detroiters asking questions about what’s being stored on the riverfront, what’s being done about pollution on the riverbed, and what persistent high water levels may mean for future risk. City officials have announced a plan to inspect riverfront facilities, while EGLE spokeswoman Tracy Kecskemti said the agency will look at “inundation maps” to predict future risks as high water levels continue.

8. Detroit launches its Sustainability Action Agenda

Over the summer, the City of Detroit came out with a 106-page document to address problems that Detroiters face from pollution, storms and flooding, energy, and a warming planet. One of the challenges the planners faced was the challenge of making the concept of “sustainability” relevant for people with immediate concerns around safety or the cost of living, which it did by addressing these problems head-on and integrating them into broader environmental concerns like climate change. Among other things, the plan informed the city’s Greenhouse Gas Ordinance which looks to reduce emissions from city operations to zero by 2050. In a strong mayor political system like Detroit, how much the agenda steers the conversation is ultimately up to future mayors and their voters.

9. Fiat Chrysler expansion on the East Side threatens air quality, presents ‘textbook environmental racism’

If the Sustainability Action Agenda represented a step forward for Detroit, the rushed deal to expand the Fiat Chrysler facilities at Mack and Conner—complete with opaque land deals and generous tax breaks — was business-as-usual. Activists were quick to point out how the expanded facility could make the already bad air on the East Side worse. Especially alarming was the FCA plan to comply with the Clean Air Act by reducing emissions at a plant in predominantly-white Warren and increase them in predominantly-black Detroit, which community activist Gregg Newsom referred to as “textbook environmental racism”.

10. Just in time for Christmas: Green ooze

If you thought you could escape 2019 without chartreuse-colored toxic fluid spilling out onto one of the busiest areas highways, then bless your heart. The hexavalent chromium-laden effluent (Yes, the one from Erin Brokovich) emerged from the embankment of I-696 on December 20th, having traveled from the shuttered Electro-Plating Services in Madison Heights. The owner of this business was recently imprisoned for pollution violations. Perhaps more troubling is the fact that the Environmental Protection Agency claimed to have cleaned up this site in 2017 and 2018. Going into 2020, the green ooze is an absurd reminder of the work that needs to be done not just to clean up the environment in Southeast Michigan, but to even understand the damage that has already been done. The story was picked up by the New York TimesCNN, and NPR, among others.

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