2021: A Year in Review

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From basement flooding to power outages and mysterious eruptions of soil, Detroiters had plenty to commiserate over this year. Planet Detroit was here to keep you updated on all of it, and we’ve picked out our top stories from the past year because–like the Revere Dock collapse–what was old is bound to be new again. 

Flooded again: In the early morning of Saturday, June 26, more than 6 inches of rain hit metro Detroit within minutes, backing up sewer lines and filling basements with water as well flooding area expressways and damaging hundreds of vehicles. The initial round of flooding resulted in a federal disaster declaration, but this event was followed by more, albeit less severe, flooding in July and August. In addition to the expense of cleaning up basements and replacing appliances, research released this year showed that flooding in Detroit is associated with higher asthma rates, disproportionately affecting Black residents. And the climate crisis likely has more flooding in store for Detroit, with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) data showing increasing precipitation in the eastern U.S. while the West dries out. What are the authorities doing to address this problem? Well, that’s an excellent question. The Great Lakes Water Authority (GLWA) says it could take around $20 billion to prevent basement flooding in the metro area and that they may need a year to finish a study on how to do this. Meanwhile, the White House’s most ambitious climate spending plan seems to have hit a brick wall (aka Sen. Joe Manchin). (Planet Detroit, NY Times, Detroit News)

Stellantis stink: The Jeep plant on Detroit‘s east side emerged as a symbol of environmental racism and a source of odors that residents describe as smelling like gas or paint. “I’m just sitting here, and I can taste it in my mouth, like, on my tongue,” U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib said in a Facebook video filmed near the plant. The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center filed a civil rights complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency over Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) decision to issue a permit for the plant’s expansion. This followed three air quality violations at the plant where Stellantis (FKA Fiat-Chrysler) failed to hook up the ducting correctly and wasn’t correctly treating the volatile organic compounds (VOC) coming from the paint shop. Even before these problems, the plant, which received $400 million in tax incentives, was already increasing ozone pollution in a predominantly Black community after decreasing emissions in mostly white Warren. Stellantis promises to have the exhaust tubes hooked up properly by the end of the year. (Vice, Detroit News, Crain’s, WDET)

DTE, great job: It’s been an exciting year for DTE Energy customers. The utility collected $220 million in federal COVID relief but still cut power to thousands of customers. In August, nearly 600,000 customers lost power, some of them for a week. “I just can’t believe we were out of power for seven days. I don’t know how that happens in 2021,” said Layla Elabed. Large storms knocking out power during a summer heatwave might pose a special risk in Detroit, where researchers say such an event could produce more fatalities than Hurricane Katrina. This year, research also showed that low-income areas and communities of color are more likely to be impacted by air pollution from DTE’s power plants while also shouldering a higher energy burden. Ann Arbor may offer a response to some of these issues. The city is currently considering commissioning a feasibility study for a public utility. (The Guardian, MLive, Planet Detroit)

ABC (always be collapsing): Proving that time is indeed the flattest of circles, Detroit’s Revere Dock once again collapsed, raising concerns of soil contaminants moving into drinking water intakes in the Detroit River and prompting another round of recriminations for Detroit Bulk Storage, who were believed to be storing piles of aggregate too close to the seawall. Detroit Bulk Storage’s previous uh-oh moment on the riverfront raised fears that radiation from the site’s use in the Manhattan Project would enter the river. In neither case were elevated radiation levels or other contamination found in the water. Still, the first collapse led to the passage of the Detroit River protection ordinance this year. City Councilmember Raquel Castañeda-López said that Detroit Bulk Storage’s repeated “transgressions” mean the city should terminate its license. (Freep, Crain’s, Detroit News)

One long lead crisis: Michigan once again finds itself dealing with a lead drinking water crisis, although it’s more like one long crisis if we’re being honest with ourselves. Benton Harbor residents were told to drink bottled water after three years of lead action level exceedances, which had prompted some of them to petition the environmental protection agency. Other cities that found lead above the federal action level of 15 parts per billion this year include St. Clair Shores, Hamtramck, and Wayne. Fortunately, the Michigan Senate has passed a water infrastructure bill that contains $1 billion for removing lead service lines. However, as much as $2.5 billion may be needed to remove all of these. Less fortunately, drinking water systems are likely testing too few pipes and diluting their testing with samples from service lines that aren’t made out of lead. “It’s giving residents a false sense of confidence in their water quality,” said Elin Betanzo, a former Environmental Protection Agency scientist who helped expose the Flint water crisis. Detroit, for example, has 311,000 service lines, and 80,000 of these are lead, but the city only tests 50 taps a year. (Detroit News, Freep, WDET, Planet Detroit)

Off the island: After years of complaints about the Detroit Grand Prix’s impact on park users, advocates scored a victory when the organizers for the car race announced it would leave Belle Isle for Downtown. This follows a number of park closures to car traffic that the Department of Natural Resources says were caused by traffic backups but coincided with the race’s lengthy, 59-day setup and tear-down time. The race will move downtown, starting in 2023, where it’s expected to have a similar, two-month timeline.  (Crain’s and Planet Detroit)

Mystery mound: One of the stranger stories of 2021 was the appearance of a spontaneous mound on Dearborn Street in southwest Detroit, which took out the Stash Detroit cannabis dispensary. The event damaged a gas line and led some residents to call for an evacuation, but the incident source was a bit of a head-scratcher. Officials initially suspected a water main break caused the upwelling of soil before later determining that heavy materials, stored by an unnamed company, disrupted soil that wasn’t strong enough to carry the weight. “While the company storing the material was operating completely legally, this incident and others in southwest Detroit are causing us to review our ordinances as they relate to top material storage, particularly in the southwest area of the city,” said Detroit Chief Operating Officer Hakim Berry. (Freep, MI Radio, Detroit News)

Climate crisis is now: 2021 seemed to be the year that the effects of climate change came to Detroit in force. In addition to multiple rounds of flooding in the city and metro area, widespread power outages were caused by intense storms that uprooted trees and took out power lines. Even smoke from western wildfires impacted air quality in Michigan. Ben van der Pluijm, a geologist and professor of earth and environmental science at the University of Michigan, told Planet Detroit that in addition to these problems, the Great Lakes region is also likely to see higher temperatures and an increase in the heat island effect in Detroit, health problems from heat stress and worsening air quality and more lake effect snow, as cold winter air moves over increasingly warm lakes. (Detroit News, Planet Detroit)

Prop P and water affordability: In August’s primary election, Detroit voters rejected Proposal P by a wide margin, with 67% voting against and 33% in favor, although turnout out for the election was a scant 14.29%. The proposal sought to revise the city’s charter to stop water shutoffs for nonpayment, set water rates at no more than 3% of a household’s income, and expand community benefits for large development projects, among other things. Still, water affordability remains a significant issue in Detroit. Mayor Mike Duggan has enlisted former Detroit Health Department director Abdul El Sayed to address this, potentially with help from new taxes on water bottling companies, new water rate structures, or federal dollars. A recent study found that since 1980, Michiganders have seen a 188% increase in the cost of water service when adjusted for inflation, and Detroiters have seen an increase of 285%. (Freep, Planet Detroit)

COVID continues: As of this writing, Detroit has seen 2,669 fatalities from COVID-19 and nearly 80,000 confirmed cases. Just 36.8% of the city is fully vaccinated. Air pollution, flooding, poor access to health care, food insecurity, a home repair crisis, and the city’s history of redlining have all likely contributed to the pandemic’s impact in the city. Air pollution is significantly associated with worse COVID outcomes.  But while citizen groups continue to organize against environmental threats like industrial pollution and truck traffic, some say the city lacks a coherent response to these issues. “We have to decide collectively as a society —  do we place more value on financial incentives or economic growth,” said Nick Schroeck, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law. “Or do we really put the focus on public health and making sure that at least within the region, we don’t have these disparate impacts where communities of color are overly burdened with pollution.” (Planet Detroit, Detroit News, Fox 2)

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