Planet Detroit looks back at 2020

The year that was 2020 seemed to reveal — to a shocking degree — the structural injustices and ecological vulnerabilities that activists, researchers, and ordinary citizens have been trying to bring attention to for generations. 

2020 was…a year. Like everyone else we’re still processing what the events of the past 12 months mean.

But we think it’s safe to say that none of this — from COVID-19 to ongoing protests over police violence — came from out of the blue. Rather, 2020 seemed to reveal to a shocking degree the structural injustices and ecological vulnerabilities that activists, researchers and ordinary citizens have been trying to bring attention to for generations. 

Planet Detroit attempted to do its part in documenting the environmental intersections of the pandemic and the struggle for justice this year, while keeping an eye on the ecological threats that were pushed out by other coverage. 

Here’s a look back at some of the top local environmental stories for 2020:

COVID-19 highlights ongoing environmental injustice

There’s no getting around it, the COVID-19 pandemic hit Detroit exceptionally hard and it intersected with a number of environmental stories, including how to keep citizen’s cool when cooling centers could spread the virus and ongoing issues with air pollution in Detroit that threatened to make the disease more deadly. It also highlighted the food insecurity that many Detroiters face and the hodge-podge of government benefits, food banks and schools that many rely on. (Planet Detroit)

Water shutoffs finally get taken seriously

Among the most glaring examples of systemic injustice that COVID-19 helped expose was the fight against water shutoffs in Detroit and Michigan at large. Gov. Gretchen Whitmer banned shutoffs in March and ordered reconnections in an effort to ensure basic health and sanitation during the pandemic, although activists had been arguing that this was a public health crisis for years. Then in October, the Michigan Supreme Court invalidated the Governor’s emergency order, creating renewed fears of shutoffs and forcing residents to deal with a patchwork of policies and public assistance programs. Finally, in December, the city of Detroit announced a moratorium on disconnections through 2022 and the state legislature advanced a bill to stop shutoffs through the end of March. But Detroit and the rest of the state are left to wonder if the roughly 800,000 citizens at risk of disconnections could see a return to the practice some time in the not-too-distant future. (Planet Detroit, Freep, NRDC)

High water floods Belle Isle and Jefferson Chalmers

Historically high levels in the Great Lakes hit Detroit in a big way as floodwaters continued to inundate Belle Isle via the Blue Heron Lagoon, which was recently opened up to connect the island’s lakes and canals with the Detroit River. By the end of the summer, flood controls had successfully been put into place, but many of the trees in the historic flatwoods on the east end of the island were dead. The east side neighborhood of Jefferson Chalmers was threatened by high waters again as well, although a city program to install temporary “tiger dams” seemed to mitigate the worst of the flooding. (Daily Detroit, Planet Detroit)

US Ecology expands its toxic waste facility and is charged with violating civil rights law

A massive expansion of the US Ecology North hazardous waste facility on the Detroit/Hamtramck border met with opposition from residents and activists as well as a landmark lawsuit charging that the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) violated civil rights law by allowing these facilities to proliferate in communities of color. This served as a stark reminder of the number of hazardous waste facilities that already exist in Detroit and other predominantly Black and minority communities across the country, a problem that helped create the concept of environmental justice. But while residents waited for a resolution to the civil rights complaint around US Ecology North, another problem emerged: US Ecology South. This site inundated neighborhoods with the smell of “rotting fish mixed with a permanent marker”. (Planet Detroit, D News)

Detroit’s Black farmers form a fund to buy land

A bright spot in Detroit’s struggle for food sovereignty came with the Detroit Black Farmer Land Fund, which has raised at least $65,000 to help Black growers in the city purchase land. “Black farmers are definitely at a disadvantage because of lack of access to capital,” said Tepfirah Rushdan, co-director of Keep Growing Detroit. “I saw this disparity with ready cash to purchase land. I just worry that farmers are going to be priced out.” So far, 30 farmers have been helped by the initiative, which also provides technical assistance with navigating the purchase process. (Planet Detroit)

FCA expands on the east side, promising jobs but raising fears of increased air pollution

The expansion of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ east side facilities at Mack and Conner continued to generate headlines in 2020. The facility is under a community benefits agreement that promises thousands of jobs for Detroiters, but residents near the two plants worried about the expected increase in air pollution and felt they couldn’t trust FCA or the available air monitoring technology to accurately measure the threat. Those living near the plants are three times more likely to suffer from asthma than the average Michigan resident. (Planet Detroit)

Detroit’s children continue to be exposed to lead as testing declined

Michigan recently adopted what some believe to be the most protective lead and copper rule in the country, lowering the lead action level to 12 parts per billion and requiring full lead service line replacements within 20 years. Yet, Highland Park struggles to keep its water below this action level and lead house paint remains a pervasive issue in Detroit. To make matters worse, lead testing for children declined significantly this year as the pandemic forced people to make remote visits with health care providers. “If you’re a child with [high levels] of lead in your blood and you don’t get tested, you’re going to lose major cognitive capacity, and that loss is not recoverable,” said Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University. (NRDC, Planet Detroit, Metro Times, Bridge)

Environmental groups move away from predominantly white leadership

Justin Schott stepped down from his position with the environmental organization EcoWorks this year to make way for Bryan Lewis, the group’s first non-white executive director, part of an effort by some environmental groups to make their organizations more representative of the communities they serve by welcoming more people of color into leadership positions. Huron-Clinton Metroparks took a similar step, hiring Artina Sadler to be their first-ever Chief of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion. “We were trying to do this work before all of the events of 2020,” Sadler said. “But what has happened since COVID and this most recent eruption — a word I use reluctantly because we’ve seen [excessive use of police] abuses, racial mistreatment and murders happening forever — the conditions have ramped things up. Instead of having to convince people that racism is a thing, it’s in their faces.” (Planet Detroit)

Nature remains

Among other things, the pandemic drove more people outside and amplified concerns in Detroit about the lack of quality open space in the city. This reflected a history of inadequate access to parks and a feeling of unwelcomeness on the part of Black Detroiters trying to visit regional open spaces. Highland Park resident Angela Lugo-Thomas did her part, advocating for an overlooked park in her city, while Melissa McLeod helped people connect with Detroit nature through the Feral Detroit Instagram feed. Planet Detroit’s artist-in-residence, Bridget Quinn cultivated the online exhibition, “Life in the Cracks”, showcasing plant life in the built environment, and our Detroiters Do Science documented thousands of instances of nature in local backyards and parks. Each of these projects showed in a different way that in spite of everything that this year threw at us, nature remains. (Planet Detroit)


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