What would a third Duggan term bring for the environment in Detroit?

Robert Shobe doesn’t know who he will be voting for in Detroit’s mayoral primary, but it will not be Mike Duggan. His frustration with the current mayor stems from the expansion of the Stellantis facilities immediately behind his Beniteau Street home and what he sees as the lack of protective measures taken for the neighborhood’s residents. (Note: Fiat Chrysler Automobiles recently changed its name to Stellantis.)

Shobe says that the community benefits package being offered as part of the expansion does little to protect residents from air pollution and doesn’t include plans to pay for residents like himself to relocate to other areas of the city, as a program for the Gordie Howe International Bridge project does. Many in his east side neighborhood already suffer from high rates of asthma, which could be made worse by the auto company’s plans to increase emissions of volatile organic companies or VOCs

“I think the mayor feels like the people in this neighborhood are not important,” Shobe said. “He just runs over people like us.”

Stellantis received more than $400 million in city and state tax breaks and the city assembled more than 200 acres of land to give to the company as part of the development. Shobe wonders why more wasn’t done to pressure the company to reduce air pollution or provide other benefits in his neighborhood.  “If you’re going to make those deals with the corporations, you need to find a way to get the money back into these communities,” he said.

As a multi-term mayor with a long history of working in Detroit, experts tell Planet Detroit that Duggan has significant power to influence environmental issues like the Stellantis expansion. Yet, although there has been progress on some environmental issues during his eight years in office, Detroit City Council Member Raquel Castañeda-López says the mayor’s administration has been reactive on environmental issues at best. 

“From an environmental justice and public health standpoint,” Castañeda-López said the Duggan administration’s record has been “pretty poor and actually somewhat oppositional to addressing those issues.” 

“Duggan has always been at his best in a five-alarm crisis,” the Free Press Editorial Board recently wrote in its endorsement of the mayor’s re-election campaign, where they praised the city’s testing program for COVID-19.

Castañeda-López agrees that Duggan’s strengths lie in execution, but argues that the administration “lacks vision” when it comes to addressing ongoing environmental threats and prioritizes job creation at the expense of public health. 

Duggan’s leadership approach and crisis management skills are also being tested by climate change, which combined with aging infrastructure, produced disastrous flooding last month and threatens the city with heatwaves that could turn into mass casualty events. In an election that some say Duggan is likely to win, the biggest question for advocates might be what they can do to pressure his administration to proactively address environmental justice issues and the threats posed by the climate crisis.

A reactive administration

The mayor’s position on water shutoffs is emblematic of his leadership style, according to Nick Schroeck, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. The practice was rolled out in force while the city was under emergency management and continued during Duggan’s two terms, with more than 140,000 water customers disconnected for non-payment since 2014. Experts drew attention to this as a public health crisis, potentially contributing to the spread of water-borne illnesses, but it was only with the COVID-19 pandemic that the mayor instituted a temporary moratorium on shutoffs through 2022.

“They weren’t ahead of the game on that one,” Schroeck said. “It was reacting to a public health emergency, rather than being like, ‘Well, gosh, this is already a public health emergency.’”

Running a city with a number of urgent challenges like trash collection and underperforming schools likely contributes to the administration’s failure to prioritize environmental issues, Schroeck says. But he said it’s been a challenge for the administration to see that air pollution and water shutoffs are also immediate problems. “People are struggling,” Schroeck said. “You’ve got people that are losing their children because they don’t have water in the home.”

Mayor Duggan wields a large amount of power to influence how business is done in the city, Schroeck added,  even if he isn’t generally the one overseeing permits for the industry. He points to the desire by businesses to maintain good relations with the city and the fact that they’re also often requesting tax breaks or zoning changes as factors that give the mayor leverage.

Michelle Martinez, acting executive director for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, said the mayor was notably silent on how projects like the Stellantis expansion would impact air quality. “We heard very little from the mayoral administration about a breathing crisis,” she said.

Castañeda-López says the mayor lacks the “political courage” to stand up to businesses that are delivering economic benefits.

“(The) solution to everything is not just the creation of jobs,” she said, stressing that more thought needs to be put into how development projects could impact already polluted neighborhoods. 

Duggan’s re-election campaign didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. Sandra Turner-Handy, engagement director for the Michigan Environmental Council, also noted that the campaign did not respond to questions for the Detroit Environmental Agenda’s 2021 voter guide.

However, Castañeda-López says the city’s Buildings, Safety, Engineering, and Environmental Department (BSEED) has made improvements in how planning is done for development projects recently, doing truck impact studies and looking at vegetative buffering that could block some air pollution. Other environmental advocates also stressed that progress has been made during Duggan’s time in office. Turner-Handy praised the creation of the Office of Sustainability, which is in the process of developing a climate strategy to minimize impacts from heatwaves, flooding and extreme weather in Detroit neighborhoods. And Martinez says it was a “watershed moment” when the mayor pushed back against Marathon Petroleum’s plans to increase sulfur dioxide pollution in 2016.

But Martinez points out that the objection to the Marathon expansion came after years of advocacy in the highly polluted 48217 ZIP code, which she called “a really important voting block”. Other changes in city policy seem to have followed either widespread media coverage and resident concern or after activists have already secured a victory. For example, the mayor only publicly came out against the Detroit incinerator–which had been burning trash to create energy in the middle of the city since the 1980s–after pressure from activists and legal action had already forced the facility to suspend operations. “Where were you when we were advocating?” Turner-Handy asked.  

The climate crisis test the mayor

Climate change is already hitting Detroit, regardless of the mayor’s priorities or anyone else’s for that matter. The city just experienced its second “500-year flood” in a decade, the sort of event that the 2014 National Climate Assessment says will become increasingly common in the Midwest. Heatwaves could also become more deadly in the city–especially if there’s a power outage–leading one expert to remark that such an event could be worse than Katrina

“These are life and death issues that we’re dealing with because of climate change,” Shcroeck said. Calling attention to the heatwave that just affected the west coast, killing hundreds of people in the U.S. and Canada, Schroeck believes a similar event would be catastrophic in Detroit. “It’s just a matter of time until it happens,” he said.

“What we don’t have in Detroit are emergency response protocols that would adequately address the scope and the scale of the crisis that we’re at,” Martinez said. She wonders what the plan is for protecting residents during a serious heatwave or other severe weather event and how this will be communicated. During Detroit’s recent flooding, residents reported they couldn’t get through to 9-1-1 to find out if they should evacuate, leading State Sen. Stephanie Chang to suggest that there needs to be an alert system for these kinds of emergencies.

The sources Planet Detroit spoke with were in agreement that climate change response needs to be one of the mayor’s top priorities. But, they noted,  public pressure may be necessary to get Duggan to be more proactive on planning for climate change adaptation if he wins another term.

“He wants to be viewed as a pragmatic problem-solver,” Schroeck said. “Climate change needs to be one of those problems that are on his shortlist.” Castañeda-López offers one example of the mayor possibly being swayed by public pressure, noting that BSEED has been working with the city council on a proposed riverfront ordinance — despite pushback from businesses

This ordinance comes in response to the collapse of the Detroit Bulk Storage site on the Detroit riverfront–which raised fears of contaminated soils moving into drinking water intakes and was widely covered in local and national media–suggesting sufficient outrage and interest could influence the administration.

What might a more engaged administration look like? Castañeda-López suggests that more strategic planning could utilize the city’s large amount of vacant land to infiltrate stormwater and reduce flooding while planting trees that mitigate heat and air pollution. This could also provide Detroiters with more quality open space. She says many in her district reached out during the pandemic to express frustration that they didn’t have small parks and other spaces to go to when they were otherwise stuck at home.

Martinez believes that the city needs a champion for environmental justice, especially to protect those living closest to polluting facilities or helping them move to another neighborhood if they want to. She says the city has the power to create safeguards beyond what the state requires, as it did with its Bulk Solid Materials Ordinance, although Castañeda-López argues the Duggan administration worked to water down that legislation on behalf of business.

That ordinance created the Public Health Fund — which Castañeda-López and others say has not been properly funded — but could do things like purchase air monitors and air filtration systems for schools, libraries, head start locations, and senior residences.  

Regardless of the outcome of next month’s elections, Schroeck says the city faces a moment of reckoning with the climate crisis and its history of environmental injustice. 

“We do have an opportunity to continue to shift the city’s focus into a greener, more resilient future,” he said. “And that’s what we have to do. If we double down on the old ways, we’re going to be in a lot of trouble.”


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