Published in partnership with BridgeDetroit
Michigan environmentalists are calling on the federal government to deny a proposed railway merger that they say would lead to increased noise and air pollution for Detroit.
In 2021, Canadian Pacific Railway struck a $31 billion deal to purchase Kansas City Southern to create the first rail network from Mexico to Canada. The merger, proponents hope, will cut shipping time and boost economic development along the route with an expected 20,000 additional jobs.
According to Canadian Pacific, the merger would connect customers to new markets, improve competition in the U.S. rail network, and provide environmental benefits. But some advocates, residents, and politicians in cities across the Midwest are worried about increased pollution associated with the merger. In Michigan, environmental groups warn that the merger’s overall positive greenhouse gas impact could come at the expense of residents in Detroit, a predominantly Black city already burdened by heavy air pollution.
To move forward, the railways need final approval from the Surface Transportation Board, a federal agency that regulates surface transportation in the United States. The board is weighing the proposal, has released an environmental impact statement, and is expected to give its decision in 2023.
Detroiter Michael Dorsey, co-founder of the Sunrise Movement, a youth-led, climate change political action group, and vice board chair of the Michigan Environmental Council, an environmental policy advocacy organization, sent a letter to the STB asking it to turn down the merger, citing pollution concerns.
“This needs to be stopped,” said Dorsey, arguing the merger is all about corporate capture and profit.
“I’m first in line to say, ‘let’s get the infrastructure that we need to avoid the unfolding catastrophic climate crisis that we are presently in,’ but this is not that. What [Canadian Pacific] is doing is not that,” he said.
Conan Smith, CEO of the Michigan Environmental Council, added it’s a question of who benefits and who pays.
“From a global standpoint, reducing the amount of truck traffic? Great. We all want that – that’s fantastic, but it is not a sufficient trade-off if the consequences are hundreds, if not thousands of more trucks coming into [Detroit].”
Pollution concerns and overall environmental impact are one of two parallel analyses the STB is conducting to determine whether it will approve the merger.
The board is considering the merger both in terms of its impact on the environment and the national rail system, according to Michael Booth, a public affairs officer for the STB. In August, the STB issued an environmental impact statement, which analyzes the project’s potential environmental impacts and makes recommendations for mitigating harmful effects, such as ways to reduce noise and vibration impacts.
According to the STB, the merger is expected to bring an additional 87 trucks per day to the CP Railway Detroit Intermodal Terminal on the west side of Detroit by 2027, increasing truck traffic by 62% and rail car traffic by 70%.
In its environmental impact statement, the STB said although the merger would not increase total air emissions, it “would change the local distribution of emissions by diverting trains from other rail lines,” increasing localized emissions of air pollutants at some segments along the route.
Detroit is one of the areas where local emissions could increase. The increase in trucks would likely mean more ozone pollution for an area that does not currently meet federal air quality standards for ozone, a pollutant that contributes to emphysema, asthma, and bronchitis.
Across the country, people of color are exposed to higher levels of air pollution than white people, a 2021 study in Science Advances found. The highest disparities are attributable to the construction, transportation, and industry sectors.
A representative for Canadian Pacific told BridgeDetroit that an additional 87 trucks aren’t going to have a huge impact on Detroit, considering the amount of traffic already present in the city, and said that the company doesn’t project any additional train traffic through Detroit due to the merger.
But for residents already struggling with the number of trucks in Detroit, one more is too many. For decades, residents have urged the city to adopt an ordinance limiting where trucks can travel to prevent them from going into residential neighborhoods. Similar ordinances exist in other big cities.
“It’s just absolutely ridiculous,” said Thomasenia Weston, a southwest Detroit resident for more than 20 years. While the merger’s immediate impact would be several miles from her home, she feels strongly that the city shouldn’t allow for more trucks until existing concerns over truck traffic are addressed.
The noise, dust, and shaking from trucks moving through Weston’s neighborhood wears on her mental and physical health, she said. She suffers from partial hearing loss which she believes is due to the trucks. Weston said she’s often woken up at all hours of the night by the thunderous noise of trucks traveling much faster than the speed limit. Due to the shaking, she said, the walls of her house have cracks, the steps are crumbling, and the foundation has suffered.
“Our houses all have foundation damage,” she said. “I would love to pick up and leave but I’m not in a position to buy another home. I can’t sell that home to buy another home, because it’s damaged and no one’s going to buy an unhealthy home, and it’s in an unhealthy area.”
The railway merger is also expected to lead to more noise pollution in Detroit. According to the STB’s environmental statement, the merger would bring an increase of 2.2 to 2.3 additional decibels per day.
“Noise pollution has many of the same adverse impacts that air pollution does. It affects your heart. It affects your cognitive functioning. It is a sleep disruptor,” Simone Sagovac, project director for the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition said. “It’s as much of a concern for the community as air pollution is.”
Research has shown that exposure to loud noises can contribute to high blood pressure, stress-related illnesses, and lost productivity and sleep.
“The thing about this merger and trade development in general, is that it has serious impacts on the communities where it’s landing, and there has not been the attention needed to look at how development like this affects our communities,” Sagovac said.
Beyond Detroit, the proposed merger was protested in Illinois, where Democratic U.S. Reps Raja Krishnamoorthi and Marie Newman as well as Democratic senators Tammy Duckworth and Dick Durbin sent letters to the STB asking the board not to approve it.
Across the country, Democratic U.S. Rep. Katie Porter in California, and others, like the Milwaukee Fire Department, also submitted letters of opposition, citing concerns ranging from increased air pollution to added noise to increased challenges for emergency services.
In several cities, Canadian Pacific has agreed to pay upwards of $3 million to help mitigate the merger’s impact if the project is approved.
“CP is always willing to discuss municipal concerns with city leaders,” Canadian Pacific media manager Andy Cummings said.
Officials with the City of Detroit said they plan to work with Canadian Pacific to mitigate harmful effects and are already working on strategies to address the impact of general truck traffic in the city.
“We are currently evaluating the impacts of this merger on the surrounding neighborhoods,” said Sam Krassenstein, chief of infrastructure planning for Detroit. “We plan to work closely with the Surface Transportation Board and CP Rail to minimize the impacts of additional train/truck traffic to the surrounding area.”
David Friedrichs, owner of Homeland Solar in Ann Arbor, a solar installation company, said the merger would bring immense economic benefit to Detroit. Friedrichs, an advocate for building a double-stack freight tunnel under the Detroit River, said the merger and tunnel would create a “global gateway right out of Detroit.”
Canadian Pacific owns the rail tunnel, and Friedrichs likened support for the merger to support for Ford Motor Co. because of the business it would bring to southeast Michigan.
“We’re going to have to have rail that ties us to the global potential and the global reality of manufacturing now,” he said. “If they [CP] are able to become a real player and be able to go all the way to Mexico, which is what the merger with KCS makes possible, it’s very meaningful to the future [of Detroit and Wayne County].”
Regarding pollution concerns, Friedrichs said the impending Gordie Howe International Bridge would manage traffic, and future traffic will be increasingly electric.
For Southwest Detroiters though the bridge presents more problems than solutions.
“It seems like it’s always the high polluting industry that comes, because of the bridges,” said Raquel Garcia, executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision.
She said that there needs to be better communication from the city and state. Twice, she said, a train derailed behind her house, and residents didn’t know what was in the rail car, or what had happened, for hours.
“Until we have the communication… we should not have additional development that brings that kind of level of pollution into the neighborhood,” she said.
The public has until Oct. 14 to comment on the STB’s environmental statement. The comment period was originally set to end on Sept. 26, but it was extended “in response to a request from affected communities for additional time to provide comments,” according to the website. Comments will also be taken during in-person public hearings held by the board in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 28, 29, and 30.
Booth, the STB spokesman, said the board anticipates deciding by fall 2023.
Comments can be submitted online on the Surface Transportation Board’s website.