Environmental problems become environmental justice issues based on how they harm people. Often, certain already disadvantaged communities face disproportionate harm from things like air pollution and water pollution. The most polluted areas in Detroit and other cities are often where the population is primarily Black, brown, and low-income.
And often, such communities lack access to high-quality outdoor recreation. Although Detroit is home to many parks, some Detroiters have easier access to high-quality green spaces than others. And the Joe Louis Greenway and the Detroit Riverwalk are enhancing the city’s green assets.
These issues affect Detroiters daily, from polluted waterways to lead pipelines in old homes to water affordability, noise pollution from highways, and industry that emits toxic air pollution. And, as climate change worsens existing inequities, environmental justice issues become more important.
Here’s your guide to environmental justice in Detroit and Michigan amid the climate crisis:
Environmental justice involves inequity in people’s burdens of environmental stressors such as air pollution in places where they live, work, go to school, and spend time. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) defines environmental justice as “the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies.”
Or, as Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ) explains: “Environmental justice is based on the reality that certain groups in society bear unequal environmental and economic burdens like poor air and water quality, as well as unhealthy living conditions resulting from industrial, municipal, and commercial operations and/or federal, state, and local laws, regulations, and policies. It is the idea that all people and communities have the right to equal environmental protection under the law, and to the right to live, work and play in communities that are safe, healthy and free of life-threatening conditions.”
Asthma is a medical issue, but it’s also an environmental issue because poor air quality (both indoor and outdoor) can trigger and worsen asthma. It’s an environmental justice problem because low-income, Black populations are disproportionately harmed by it – especially in Detroit.
Asthma is more common in Detroit than it is in Michigan as a whole. From 2017 to 2019, 16.2% of Detroit adults and 11.1% of Michigan adults had asthma, according to a 2021 update from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services (MDHHS). And asthma among Detroit kids has gotten worse: 14.6% of children in Detroit have asthma, while 8.4% of children in Michigan do, and this disparity used to be smaller.
Asthma affects Black Detroiters more than white Detroiters, the MDHHS data show: In 2019, the rate of asthma hospitalizations for Black residents was more than three times the rate for white residents.
According to the EPA, heat waves are expected to become more frequent and more severe as global temperatures rise because of climate change. This will exacerbate the urban heat island effect that makes temperatures higher in Detroit and other urbanized areas than in the surrounding regions. Communities that are mostly BIPOC and low-income often are more vulnerable to climate change's effects. In recent years, Detroit has already started to feel the effects of climate change, including flooding and heat waves.
The EPA explains: “Structures such as buildings, roads, and other infrastructure absorb and re-emit the sun’s heat more than natural landscapes such as forests and water bodies. Urban areas, where these structures are highly concentrated and greenery is limited, become �?islands’ of higher temperatures relative to outlying areas.”
High heat and sudden weather changes can trigger asthma, and extreme heat can contribute to deaths from a heart attack, stroke, and other medical problems. According to the EPA: “Extreme heat events strain high-risk populations disproportionately. Older adults, young children, people of color, individuals with low-income, outdoor workers, and people in poor health are the most vulnerable to these impacts.”
The people most affected by EJ issues are typically Black and brown people with low incomes and who live in older housing.
The Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition (MEJC) partnered with the University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability to map environmental justice “hot spots” in Detroit and Michigan.
“Those also happen to be areas that we know are inundated with hazardous waste facilities, with polluting sites,” said Jamesa Johnson Greer, executive director of MEJC. “And oftentimes, this is the result and the remnants of redlining, which has historically placed Black and brown folks in these areas that are more prone to deal with industry and be in the shadows of these polluting facilities.”
Racism is a public health issue, according to Laprisha Berry Daniels, executive director of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.
"The biggest problem is deliberately targeting communities of color for toxic waste facilities and other environmental hazards and harms," she said. Certain communities are being targeted for hazards and risks, as well as being excluded from the conversations about problems and solutions, "so making sure that the voices of the impacted communities are centered" is essential.
The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) developed an environmental justice screening tool that can give you an idea of the EJ concerns in different locations. It’s an interactive mapping tool called MiEJscreen that identifies communities that may be disproportionately affected by environmental hazards. Using this tool, you can look at specific communities' environmental, health, and socioeconomic conditions and combine data on a map to compare effects in different areas.
How are my local and state governments addressing environmental justice issues related to climate change?
Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer made environmental justice a state priority when she created the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate in 2019, “to serve as an external and internal advocate and catalyst for ensuring Environmental Justice throughout the state.” Led by Environmental Justice Public Advocate Regina Strong, the office works to advance environmental justice and equity in Michigan.
At the city level, Detroit's Office of Sustainability created the Detroit Climate Strategy to connect climate action with Detroiters’ needs. This involves utility and housing affordability, improving air quality and transportation options, and minimizing the effects of climate change, such as flooding and heat waves.
“There are substantial intersections between racial equity and environmental issues that are the focus of the Office of Sustainability,” the office points out. “Significant links have been noted between poor air quality and dying from COVID-19. The COVID-19 pandemic impacts our ability to address extreme weather events and exposed weaknesses in how we can respond to them.” It also acknowledges that, within Detroit, “some neighborhoods face more severe climate impacts like heat waves and flooding than others, and resources to weather these impacts are not evenly distributed.”
Although state and local governments have taken these steps to prioritize environmental justice, Detroiters often have been frustrated by slow responses to problems, inequities in certain policies and regulations and how they are enforced, and inadequate community engagement. While environmental justice may be a high-level priority, some advocates say it doesn’t always feel that way on the ground in Detroiters’ daily lives.
The cumulative impact of multiple polluters on people who live in certain Detroit neighborhoods is a pressing concern, said Raquel Garcia, executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV). She said that Southwest Detroit includes the Gordie Howe International Bridge, rail and the Detroit Intermodal Freight Terminal, and trucks that idle and speed down residential streets. Exhaust from these diesel trucks worsens asthma, especially for kids.
“I think that, on the highest sort of bird's eye view, we don't really have policies yet that protect us. And we're looking at a few policies--for example, we have an anti-idling ordinance,” but enforcement is problematic, Garcia said.
And these aren’t problems for all communities. “You don't see this in Grosse Pointe. You can drive up and down Jefferson; you're not gonna see trucks weaving through the streets,” Garcia said. “What is normalized and allowed in Detroit is just not allowed in other places. “Unless you live here, you don't really understand what it's like to have a truck rumbling past your house at five or four in the morning,” Garcia said.
SDEV is working with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to assess what policies are needed involving truck routes and where trucks can be parked, for example.
Detroit residents are concerned about pollution cleanup as well. Michigan once had a strong “polluter pay” law that made any corporation that contaminated land, air, or water responsible for cleaning it up—but that law was gutted during the Engler administration.
In February 2021, Michigan Rep. Yousef Rabhi introduced House Bill 4314 to bring back a polluter pay law. Michigan had a strong polluter pay law from 1990 until 1995, when it was dismantled during the Engler administration, The bill was referred to committee and has not progressed. The same thing happened with a Senate version of the bill. In August 2022, after Tribar Technologies released hexavalent chromium into the Huron River, Rabhi and some of the bill’s cosponsors spoke out about the bill’s importance in cleaning up contamination.
What policies do advocacy groups want to see implemented at the state and local levels to address environmental justice?
Policies at the state and local level can help limit and clean up pollution, reduce the danger of issues like water insecurity, and improve systems to mitigate EJ problems. Here are some of the policies advocacy groups are pushing for.
A top policy priority among environmental justice advocates is addressing the cumulative impact of air pollution. Such policy would address a need for “the incorporation of cumulative health and environmental impacts in decision-making at the federal, state, and local levels, in terms of the permits to pollute in communities,” Greer said. Often, this involves particulate matter that harms people with asthma and COPD.
Greer said that current air permit decision-making doesn't address that a community may already be living in an area harmed by a pollutant. Greer explained that permit decisions consider only whether the single entity seeking the permit is within the legally allowable limit but not the cumulative impact of other polluters in the area. The Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE) at the University of Michigan published an analysis identifying legislation in other states that incorporates cumulative impacts into permitting decisions.
The environmental justice issues Southwest Detroit faces are “super-concentrated layers of environmental pressures,” Garcia said. “We constantly have to be on guard, and what would be helpful is a city that says, �?They've reached their limit. Let's find another location [for a business that will bring in more trucks].’”
Garcia said that the Gordie Howe bridge is a missed opportunity to respond to an already decimated EJ community with state-of-the-art technology. While some residents relocated from the Delray neighborhood, “the remaining people, their windows are cracking all the time because there's this constant rumbling from the existing trucks, and it's only going to increase when that bridge opens. And so you would think that at the very least, they’d design something that wouldn't pollute them again,” she said.
Water utility policy
According to the United Nations, access to clean water and sanitation is a basic human right. This makes contaminated drinking water and water shutoffs for unpaid bills into EJ issues.
When the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department (DWSD) shut off the water to more than 20,000 homes in 2014, it attracted international attention and highlighted an EJ problem, as some of Detroit’s low-income residents lacked access to this basic human right.
Advocacy groups We The People of Detroit and the Detroit People's Platform have lobbied for more than a decade for the city of Detroit to adopt a water affordability plan that bases water bills on income. Such plans have been adopted in other cities.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, DWSD instituted a moratorium on water shutoffs, which was set to expire at the end of 2022. Advocates asked DWSD for an income-based water affordability plan, and DWSD recently established the city’s first income-based water affordability program, called the DWSD Lifeline Plan.
Detroiters with a household income at or below 200% of the federal poverty level can enroll, and the plan provides fixed rates for water use up to 4,500 gallons per month for three different income levels. For example, a household with an income at or below 135% of the poverty level would have a fixed rate of $18 per month. But some researchers have said the 4,500-gallon limit might not be enough for some households. The Lifeline Plan also erases debt with DWSD, stating that enrolled residents will not have their water shut off.
Energy burdens and energy equity
A household’s energy burden is the percentage of its income spent on home energy bills. Above 6% is considered high, and a severe energy burden is above 10%. In Detroit, 30% of households have a high energy burden, and 16% have a severe energy burden. Various state and local programs exist to help low-income residents pay their bills, but DTE Energy continues to shut off power to low-income households, leaving them in the dark.
University of Michigan researchers are developing a national framework for measuring energy equity to identify policies and programs that can reduce energy inequity. According to Justin Schott, manager of the Energy Equity Project at the University of Michigan, a flattened, one-size-fits-all approach won't remedy the disparities in the energy system. Activists accuse DTE of "utility redlining" -- raising rates while failing to invest in infrastructure in poor neighborhoods and delivering inferior service to those communities.
“To even begin to fix this situation, utilities, regulators, and others need new approaches that take the potential impacts on these communities into account and can be used to evaluate every policy decision,” said Amy Bandyk, executive director of the Citizens Utility Board of Michigan, “Measurable frameworks like the one developed by the Energy Equity Project are exactly what utility ratepayers, particularly lower-income ratepayers, need to address the poor reliability and high rates that they currently face.”
Mobility is a pivotal issue in our region, and many discussed policies revolve around electric vehicles. But they leave out Detroiters who can’t afford electric cars, Garcia said. Strengthening public transit is a critical environmental justice issue for advocates.
For example, she said, if you’re giving someone a rebate for buying an electric car, why not do the same for someone’s bus fare? Mass transit is an important part of these conversations, she said. “We could do a great job of improving air quality if we had strong public transportation, rather than the single-use cars.”
What groups and resources are available to help deal with environmental justice issues that affect my community?
For more information about environmental justice issues in general, and potential ways to address them, these groups can serve as a starting point:
- Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice
- Great Lakes Environmental Law Center
- Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition
- Detroit People’s Platform
- The Ecology Center
- Clean Water Action
- Energy Equity Project
- Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE)
- Block clubs, neighborhood organizations, and local advocacy organizations that may already be mobilizing and taking action on pollution and other EJ issues.
For example, organizations like Detroit People’s Platform “have been raising the alarm for a long time,” Greer noted. “And also, in gathering with community, there's an opportunity, obviously, for advocacy to take place.”
The Ecology Center installs air quality monitors, and neighborhood groups interested in monitoring their having their neighborhood monitored may contact Research Director Jeff Gearhart at firstname.lastname@example.org or 734-369-9276.
Along with getting connected to some of the neighborhood organizations and advocacy groups that are already working to address EJ issues, contacting your state, city, and other local officials is essential.
“Those are folks who should be aware that you are dealing with these issues, and just raising awareness around them,” Greer said. “We often see that environmental justice communities are the alarm bell for state or federal agencies to know something is wrong. We see it in Southwest Detroit, we see it downriver, we see it with folks who are living near the Marathon oil refinery.” If there’s a noxious smell in the air, for example, contacting local officials about it can draw attention to it, she said.
Showing up to public hearings and city council meetings can help. “I think everyone should be talking to their city council members about their air quality and asking what they're doing to notify residents better when there's an incident,” Garcia said.
“Showing up to the public hearings that EGLE may be having, or showing up to your city council meeting and talking about what you're noticing in your community and why it's concerning, is absolutely necessary for folks to hear directly from folks who are impacted,” Greer said.
“It is really you being the eyes and ears of your community that's also going to be helpful,” Greer said.
To be aware of the air quality in your neighborhood, you can check EGLE’s air quality monitoring data for current levels of pollutants. Garcia recommends putting a reminder on your calendar to check this data regularly, such as twice a month, to stay informed.
The EPA has a site called AirNow, where you can plug in your zip code and see current air quality data.
Wayne County has a 24-hour Environmental Hotline, where you can report problems and ask questions.
For resources on asthma, see The Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America’s Michigan chapter, and the Asthma Initiative of Michigan.
Garcia noted that representatives from block clubs can sometimes receive stipends to attend meetings on certain topics and then share what they learned with their group. She also recommended using block club communications to disseminate pertinent information, such as through email lists or services that allow you to text large groups of people at once.
This Planet Detroit Climate Guide is supported by the Americana Foundation and the GM Foundation.