EXCERPT: Great Lakes Champions

The following is an excerpt from John Hartig’s new book, Great Lakes Champions, which profiles some of the movers and shakers who have made a difference in the fight to clean up the Great Lakes.

Grab your copy here.


I have had the honor and privilege of working the majority of my more than 30-year career on the cleanup and restoration of the most polluted areas of the Great Lakes called Areas of Concern. During this time, I met many people who were local champions of watershed cleanup efforts. They so inspired me that I decided to write a book entitled “Great Lakes Champions” about 14 of these people who love the Great Lakes, who stepped up to become leaders of restoration efforts, and inspired others to follow. They have had to persevere over decades and not give up in the face of adversity. They are well respected and trusted in their communities and are not in it for acclimation or commendation. They simply and profoundly love the Great Lakes, show reverence for them, and work tirelessly to pass them on as a gift to future generations. Their stories are compelling, provide proof that individuals can indeed change the ecosystems where they live, and will give hope to a new generation of champions.

-John Hartig


Chapter 6: Guy O. Williams: Detroit River Champion

The Detroit River is a thirty-two-mile connecting river system that all the water from the upper Great Lakes—Superior, Michigan, and Huron—flows through on its descent to the lower Great Lakes—Erie and Ontario. It also forms the international border between the United States and Canada. Located on its banks are Detroit, Michigan, and Windsor, Ontario. Both cities have a long history of urban and industrial development. Detroit is the automobile capital of the United States, and Windsor is the automobile capital of Canada. However, the Detroit metropolitan area is much larger with a population of over 3.5 million, and the Windsor metropolitan area is only about 338,000. Detroit also had considerably more industrial development than Windsor.

Just like the long-held perception that Detroit and Windsor would always be automobile towns, the Detroit River was perceived as a working river that supported industry and commerce. Both cities became indifferent to water pollution, seeing it as a necessary by-product of industrial progress.

In the 1960s, the Federal Water Pollution Control Administration considered the Detroit River one of the most polluted rivers in the United States. Oil spills and pollution from poorly regulated industrial and municipal discharges were killing substantial numbers of waterfowl.

No bald eagles, peregrine falcons, or osprey were reproducing anywhere in the watershed, and no beaver had been seen there since 1877 when the fur trade era ended. The sturgeon and whitefish were not spawning, and the invertebrates living on the river bottom were mostly pollution-tolerant species. Compounding the impact of the oil and industrial pollution, the wastewater treatment plants in the area only provided primary treatment that removed material that would either float or settle out by gravity, along with disinfection.

On top of that, Detroit’s regional combined storm and sanitary sewer system was pouring more than thirty-one billion gallons of untreated wastewater per year into the river. Perhaps it was not surprising when the Rouge River—a major tributary—caught on fire on October 9, 1969.

In the 1970s, growing public awareness and concern for pollution led to the enactment of many important environmental laws and a binational agreement, including the Canada Water Act of 1970, the U.S. National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Canada–U.S. Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement of 1972, the U.S. Clean Water Act of 1972, the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973, and the U.S. Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. These laws and the agreement, as well as complementary state, provincial, and local programs like RAPs, which were initiated in 1985 to clean up Great Lakes AOCs, including the Detroit River, provided the framework and impetus for investing billions of dollars in pollution prevention and control over the next fifty years.

The Detroit River RAP addressed several major issues. Inadequate wastewater treatment and overflows from combined storm and sanitary sewer systems were major problems. The contaminated sediments were contributing to poisoning the fish, giving them cancer, and making them unsafe for humans to eat. This pollution was also threatening drinking water supplies. Ninety-seven percent of coastal wetlands had been lost to industrial and urban development, diminishing native fish and wildlife populations. But one other issue, for many decades, fell through the cracks: environmental justice—the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income in the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. Many people just didn’t want to talk about how low-income people and communities of color suffered a greater burden from pollution and contamination.

Located on the banks of the Detroit River is an area called Southwest Detroit. It has long been notorious for poor air quality, particularly the zip code 48217, which remains among the most polluted in the state. It has the highest asthma hospitalization rates in Michigan. More than two dozen major industrial facilities surround the neighborhoods in 48217. This community is 82 percent Black and has a yearly median household income of $24,000, which is 35 percent lower than Michigan’s average. Roughly 44 percent of the people in 48217 live below the poverty line according to current U.S. Census data, compared to 14 percent for the state as a whole.

When it launched in 1985, the Detroit River RAP did not make environmental justice a priority like it did for other environmental issues.

Candidly, most people in Southwest Detroit felt that governments just didn’t care. Then the National Wildlife Federation hired Guy O. Williams to head up a pollution prevention campaign trying to achieve zero discharge of persistent toxic substances. He was attracted to this issue and was passionate about making the environment healthy for all species and all people. Williams soon met people in Detroit working on environmental justice issues facing the area. He quickly fell in love with the city, and its people stole his heart—especially those with limited opportunities, those living in unsafe neighborhoods in the shadows of heavy industries, and those with little apparent influence on governmental and corporate policies that impact their lives.

The Early Years

Williams grew up in Lanham, Maryland—an unincorporated town of about 10,000 people approximately ten miles northeast of Washington, D.C. Despite being relatively close to the U.S. capital, Williams’s hometown still had some open space and forestland that attracted a diversity of wildlife. Early on, he acquired a love of nature walking through these forests and meadows. Soon, science and math classes caught his attention, and he started questioning why society was not a better steward of natural resources and the environment. He went on to obtain his bachelor of science in education from Bucknell University, a liberal arts college in Lewisburg, Pennsylvania.

His faith and life journey has not been easy as he had to struggle with and overcome drug and alcohol addiction. With God’s help, he went on to become nationally recognized as an advocate for environmental justice and a developer of community programming that values effective collaborations among business, government, and community interests.

Guy O. Williams, Courtesy photo.

An Awakening at Environmental Defense Fund

In 1989, Williams took his first job in the environmental movement with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) in Washington, D.C. A leading national nonprofit organization representing more than 2.5 million members, EDF is dedicated to preserving natural systems on which all life depends. Looking back, he feels that it was the hand of God that put him in the EDF office at that time. Williams first became aware of environmental justice working at EDF. Environmental justice is making sure everyone has a safe place to live, work, and play.

“But unfortunately, there’s also a world of great environmental injustice, and it’s people of color who get the short end of the stick,” he notes.

In 1990, several environmental justice leaders signed letters accusing ten of the largest and most influential environmental groups (then called the “Group of 10”) of racism because of their policy development, hiring, and the composition of their boards. These were not just any nongovernmental organizations, but ones with national and international footprints, like the National Wildlife Federation (NWF), EDF, Sierra Club, Audubon Society, and more. The letters challenged these groups to address environmental issues experienced by people of color and the poor. The purpose of the letters was to get the nation’s attention, which they did. They were featured on the national news as well as in the New York Times.

“Rather than leaving EDF, I decided to stay and become part of the solution,” he said. It was a watershed moment. You may have heard the phrase “first direction, then velocity.”

His decision to stay and fight racism set the direction of his career. He then channeled his intellect, street smarts, passion, and commitment into a thirty-year career of fighting for environmental justice for all. It put him on the front lines of engaging businesses that would typically be called the polluters and exploring how they could be more environmentally safe for all people and for all species.

Soon Williams became the EDF point person for planning the first National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit on October 24–27, 1991, in Washington, D.C. The summit attracted more than five hundred delegates who ultimately drafted and adopted the seventeen Principles of Environmental Justice. These principles have gone on to guide and nurture the growing grassroots movement for environmental justice.

Next Stop: National Wildlife Federation, Ann Arbor, Michigan

During his four years at EDF, Williams encountered many outstanding people who expanded his horizons and inspired him, including EDF attorney Michael Bean, who was considered the “dean of Endangered Species Protection” in the United States. In 1994, Williams was recruited by Mark Van Putten, president and chief executive officer of the National Wildlife Federation’s Great Lakes Resource Center, in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

One of the country’s leading legal experts on the Clean Water Act, Van Putten had established the center in 1982. Williams had not only moved from one skilled organization making innovative, impactful changes that would alter the landscape of environmental policy to another but also was working with a man who would mentor, encourage, and inspire him to follow his passion and believe in his vision. NWF had been working to eliminate pollution from persistent, bioaccumulative toxic substances, like mercury, PCBs, dioxin, and DDT, since its Ann Arbor office opened in 1982. As these toxic substances move up the food web, they become more concentrated in the tissues of aquatic organisms and humans through a process called biomagnification. Their accumulation becomes problematic because they are linked to neurological and reproductive abnormalities in humans and wildlife. NWF and others were pursuing the goal of “virtual elimination of the discharge of persistent toxic substances” with a philosophy of “zero discharge,” as called for in the 1978 U.S.–Canada Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.

But it was his work on a lawsuit focused on improving water quality in the Great Lakes and reducing discharges from the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant (now called the Detroit Water Resource Recovery Facility) that put Williams on the map as an environmental innovator and collaborator to prevent pollution at its source. He and his team first documented that Detroit’s regional sewer system was releasing high levels of mercury into the Detroit River and then recommended methods for controlling it while the lawsuit was argued over several years.

Among the data and information presented as part of the litigation, Williams and his colleagues showed that in 1995 the treatment plant was discharging four pounds of mercury into the Detroit River each week. Yes, that is per week. Health advisories were in effect warning people against eating the mercury-contaminated fish, especially women of childbearing age and children. “We figured that if we could clean up that one major source of mercury to the Great Lakes, it would be a great victory and model for others to follow,” Williams said.

The lawsuit provided a unique opportunity to offer collaborative pollution prevention strategies as a creative means of encouraging a settlement. Williams’s critical thinking and skills in team building led to a major victory in preventing the release of mercury. By the time the lawsuit was settled in 2002, the defendants agreed to implement the changes sought by Williams and his colleagues at NWF. Eventually, many cities around the country replicated the same mercury-pollution prevention approach, resulting in some of the strictest environmental protections in the United States.

As part of this pollution prevention initiative, Williams and his colleagues worked with hospitals and dental offices to identify and implement practical and economical ways of reducing mercury use in the healthcare industry. They encouraged medical organizations to inventory the sources of mercury in their facilities and then made recommendations to their hazardous waste and safety committees, as well as the administration, to lessen or eliminate these sources. They also called on healthcare businesses both to reduce immediate mercury use and to set goals for stopping the use of this toxic metal altogether.

Their seminal work was heralded as one of the most effective, collaborative approaches to preventing mercury pollution in the country and even helped catalyze a new organization called Health Care without Harm, now a group with international impact. The results in Detroit speak for themselves: hundreds of pounds of mercury stopped being released from dental offices each year to the municipal sewer system.

The pollution prevention toolbox of Williams and his team included alternative disposal methods and incentives for using mercury-free amalgams. Early results showed that fourteen Michigan hospitals had agreed to limit the use of mercury, two of them by 80 percent .

Industries such as battery makers complied with efforts to reduce the use of the substance as well. In fact, standard practices in the healthcare field and the design of many commonly used products were soon transformed to include mercury-free formulas.

This pollution prevention effort directly contributed to the cleanup of the Detroit River AOC through the RAP. Williams served on its Public Advisory Committee and many others. Among the beneficial uses that the RAP seeks to restore is the ability of people to safely consume fish and wildlife. Mercury is one of the major pollutants contributing to health advisories against eating fish caught locally. Thanks to Williams and his team, the amount of mercury flowing into the river fell, thus reducing the amount found in the fish, making them safer to eat.

Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ)

The same year Williams came to Ann Arbor and took the job with NWF, he met likeminded people in Detroit working to achieve environmental justice for all. The connections Williams made helped shape how he would apply his spiritual mission in Detroit. He and likeminded Detroiters organized the city’s first environmental justice gathering in the spring of 1994 to explore what they could do together. They did not want to simply redistribute environmental harms but to abolish them. Out of that gathering came DWEJ—a nonprofit organization that provides all

Detroit residents with tools they need to address environmental concerns in their own neighborhoods. “The people who formed the nucleus of DWEJ were already there and working,” notes Williams.

“They were a source of inspiration to me and welcomed me into their body of work. For that, I am forever grateful.” As a founding member of DWEJ, he has maintained an active presence in the organization and was named president and chief executive officer in 2010.

Williams’s work has been grassroots and on the ground. Over the years, he has battled on behalf of Detroit and its people, arguing for solutions to deal with the effects of steel mill emissions, dust from heavy truck traffic, the nation’s largest municipal waste incinerator, thousands of parcels of contaminated land, and now inoperable lead smelters.

These smelters were contributing to high lead levels in the blood of the city’s children, producing lead-related illnesses and neurological and behavioral impairments. The collective impact of these sources of pollution on Detroit and its people is demonstrated by an unusually high number of low birthweight babies, cancer hotspots, high asthma rates, and a higher-than-average rate of death.

He brought a unique skill set to bear on addressing environmental justice issues in Detroit. In his own words:

I have been blessed with a wide range of life experiences that help me communicate well with basically anyone. This is one of my strengths. I feel I can connect with people at any stage of life. I can hang with company presidents and chief executive officers or be on the street with addicts and have no fear. I have a knack for seeing across different points of view. You won’t get movement on an issue if you can’t see all points of view.

Under his leadership and with the support of many, DWEJ has grown from a grassroots volunteer organization to a major voice recognized locally, statewide, and nationally for its innovative programs and projects that create sustainable, livable communities. As the first environmental justice organization in Michigan, its work is woven into the fabric of every Detroit neighborhood.

For decades DWEJ has been promoting environmental justice through education, building relationships, and shaping policy. A good example of DWEJ activities and leadership include the city’s first climate action plan, published in 2017 after the organization spent many years of working with representatives from nonprofit, educational, business, and governmental organizations, as well as people in all Detroit neighborhoods.

In the same year, DWEJ’s advocacy, in partnership with other groups, led the city to establish an Office of Sustainability. Williams’s organization provided key leadership for, and participated in, the development of the Detroit Sustainability Action Agenda in 2019. And it has established the Future Build Construction Group to help break the cycle of poverty by giving Detroit residents the skills to work in living-wage jobs with a focus on repairing and protecting the environment. Two initiatives are especially worth expanding upon.

Human Health Impacts from Air Pollution in Detroit

As noted earlier, Southwest Detroit, particularly the zip code 48217, remains among the most polluted in the state. The major sources of its poisoned air are industry and transportation, and one of the major pollutants is particulates. Per the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, particulate matter is a complex mixture of extremely small particles and liquid droplets. The particles can be made up of a number of components, including acids (from nitrates and sulfates), organic chemicals, metals, and soil or dust particles. When people breathe them in, these small particles can accumulate in the lungs and undermine heart and lung health. Exposure to particulate matter can trigger asthma attacks, result in abnormal births, reduce lung function, weaken the heart, cause cancer, and lead to death. Children, teenagers, and the elderly are particularly vulnerable to high particulate matter exposure. Although there has been about a 90 percent improvement in particulate air pollution since 1971, concern remains for long-term exposure and cumulative health burdens, particularly for vulnerable populations.

The American Lung Association (2019) reported that despite improvements in air quality, the metropolitan Detroit region is still ranked the twelfth most polluted city in the United States based on year-round particle pollution. The region also experienced more days than the national average with dangerous spikes in short-term particle pollution.

Particulate air pollution is undoubtedly worse in Southwest Detroit than in the city as a whole.

Why haven’t clear air rules made more of a difference in Southwest Detroit? Federal and state regulations fail communities of color like those living in zip code 48217 because they weren’t designed to account for multiple pollutant exposures. Simply put, the pollutant-by-pollutant regulatory approach does not adequately address the unique issues of having a cluster of major sources of pollution in a highly concentrated area like 48217. Neither the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency nor Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy require cumulative assessment of exposures. DWEJ has long advocated for this approach.

As part of other efforts to ensure that community organizations and people benefit from research, Williams, on behalf of DWEJ, has long been involved in academic partnerships. Founded in 1995, the University of Michigan School of Public Health’s Detroit Urban Research Center (URC) fosters health equity through community-based participatory research. Williams and DWEJ played a formative role in establishing one of its research partnerships, Community Action to Protect Healthy Environments, which developed and implemented a public health action plan to improve air quality and health in Detroit. Wayne State University’s Center for Urban Responses to Environmental Stressors is one of a few dozen select environmental health sciences core centers in the nation funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. As DWEJ’s president and CEO, Williams was one of the inaugural community-engagement advisees when the center was launched

in 2014, and he has continued to help shape its ongoing exploration of how stressors affect people.

One notable project coming out of these collaborations is worth mentioning. In 2017, partnering with the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health, Williams co-authored a study of human health impacts on residents in Southwest Detroit resulting from exposure to air pollution. This study examined the diseases and health disparities attributable to air pollutants for the Detroit urban area. Based on current levels, exposures to fine particulate matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide are responsible for more than 10,000 disability-adjusted life years per year—or the number of years lost due to ill-health, disability, or early death per year, causing an annual monetized health impact of $6.5 billion. This burden is mainly driven by the fine particulate and ozone exposures, which cause 660 premature deaths each year among the 945,000 individuals in the study area. Nitrogen dioxide exposures, largely from traffic, cause significant respiratory problems among older adults and children with asthma.

In total, 46 percent of air pollution-related asthma hospitalizations are due to this substance. Based on quantitative inequality metrics, the greatest inequality of health burdens results from industrial and traffic emissions. In other words, white and well-to-do people suffer least from these kinds of pollution, whereas people of color and low-income individuals suffer most. These metrics also show disproportionate burdens among Hispanic/Latino populations due to industrial emissions, and among low-income populations due to traffic emissions. People’s poor health depends on what pollutants they are exposed to, how often, and in what concentrations, as well as their own health status, susceptibility, and vulnerability.

Climate Change Action Plan

Working collaboratively with business, educational, nonprofit, and governmental organizations, Williams was, as mentioned above, the primary author of one of the country’s first community-initiated and generated Climate Action Plans. It was written from the streets up, not from the government down. DWEJ convened many stakeholders through its Detroit Climate Action Collaborative and commissioned city-specific studies on greenhouse gas emissions, vulnerability, climatology, and economic impacts. They then talked and listened through town halls; neighborhood meetings; and business, health, and youth summits, and revised their findings and recommendations in an iterative process to get them right.

The Detroit Climate Action Plan was truly the result of deep collaboration, including thousands of hours of research, brainstorming, and meetings. Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has this to say about the plan: “The Detroit Climate Action Plan, Detroit’s first, is the result of the tireless work of a wide spectrum of Detroit organizations—business, governmental, academic, nonprofits—with input from residents from every community in the city. The plan reflects the collaborative and cooperative nature of many looking to become one—one city with a clear commitment to its growth and greening”.

The Detroit Climate Action Plan includes goals and near- and longterm action steps. It is not just a report and collection of ideas. The plan lays out specific actions and attainable goals, with benchmarks. It contains over one hundred action steps focused on solid waste disposal; public health; business and institutions; parks, public spaces, and water infrastructure; and homes and neighborhoods. The intent is to accelerate the pace of positive transformation of Detroit’s built environment, energy use practices, and energy generation options. The combined impact of these changes will reduce more than Detroit’s fair share of the worldwide releases of greenhouse gases.


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