In 2022, metro Detroit averted some of the more spectacular disasters of recent years. There wasn’t the same widespread basement flooding as in 2021, no green ooze appeared on I-696, and the banks of the Detroit River seemed to stop collapsing.
But Detroiters continued to deal with the same grinding environmental injustices, including air pollution, asthma, unaffordable water and high utility bills, and lead exposure. There were signs of progress, with more access to open space and halting progress toward a water affordability plan.
Next week we’ll look at the stories we think will be important in 2023. For now, here are Planet Detroit’s top stories of 2022.
Dems win, now what? Perhaps the biggest story this year was the Democrats’ strong showing in the midterm elections that allowed the party to gain control of the governorship and both houses of the legislature. Environmental advocates hoped this could allow the party to codify the state’s climate plan and pass long-stalled legislation around renewable energy, polluter pay, and water infrastructure. Michigan voters also passed Proposal 2, which would expand voting rights, potentially building on 2018’s redistricting reform to give more Michiganders a say on crucial issues. “When you have a majority of the people who are affected by your problem having a say in how that problem is solved, we get better outcomes,” said Christy McGillivray, legislative and political director for the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. “Democracy is the biggest environmental issue of them all.” (Planet Detroit, Bridge)
Air quality violations without end: Stellantis received its seventh air quality violation since 2021 at its publicly subsidized east side Detroit facility while receiving similar violations at its Warren plant. Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) issued a $136,832 fine, an increase from a proposed $62,863 penalty that was met with pushback from residents. The consent order between EGLE and Stellantis also imposed a timeline for installing pollution controls to treat emissions from the Mack plant’s paint shop, but these may not be in place until the end of June. “EGLE has grounds to shut FCA down,” an anonymous commenter said in a report from EGLE, referring to Stellantis by their former name. And this wasn’t the only air quality problem facing east siders this year. Residents of the Poletown East neighborhood voiced concerns about bad odors from the US Ecology South hazardous waste facility, which organizer KT Andresky described as smelling like fish and a permanent marker. Meanwhile, new data showed asthma makes more Detroiters sick than anywhere else in Michigan, and Detroit was designated the worst city to live in for asthma. (Crain’s, Bridge Detroit, MI Radio, Planet Detroit, WDET)
Rate hike reduction: DTE Energy received a rare pushback in November when state regulators cut the utility’s proposed rate increase for residential customers by 90%. More than 200 people attended a hearing held by the Michigan Public Service Commission (MPSC) on the rate case in August, speaking out against the utility’s poor service and rising prices. The MPSC responded by issuing the smallest rate increase for DTE in at least a decade. Meanwhile, DTE continued to spend heavily to influence lawmakers and charities who have helped the utility fight bills that would expand rooftop solar or deflect criticism over poor service. It was also revealed this year that DTE cut service to customers 80,600 times in 2020 and then made 178,200 disconnections in 2021, far more shutoffs per 100,000 thousand customers than other private utilities made during the COVID pandemic. (Planet Detroit, ProPublica/Outlier)
Climate plan of sorts: After more than a year of negotiations and stalled legislation, Democrats passed the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) in August. This set aside $369 billion for renewable energy, making it the largest climate bill in U.S. history. In Michigan, this means people could get help covering the cost of energy-efficient appliances, rooftop solar, and electric vehicles. Yet advocates raised concerns that low-income residents may be unable to cover the upfront costs needed to secure rebates. The IRA also included provisions to allow for oil and gas drilling in Alaska and the Gulf of Mexico and opening up federal land to other fossil fuel projects, leaving environmentalists to ask if the good in the bill outweighed the bad. Michelle Martinez, director of the University of Michigan’s Tishman Center for Social Justice and the Environment, criticized the IRA’s “carbon fundamentalism” or focus on reducing emissions without adequately addressing environmental justice. She questioned the inclusion of $60 billion for “false solutions” like carbon capture, hydrogen, and nuclear power. (NY Times, Planet Detroit, Guardian)
Land of lead: Detroiters continued to be poisoned by lead, some after they purchased homes from the Detroit Land Bank. Legislation requiring universal lead testing stalled. Bright spots: a new bilingual contractor training program promises to expedite lead remediation in southwest Detroit, and a new Detroit Lead Coalition is just getting off the ground – we’ll be checking in with them next year. (Planet Detroit)
Water affordability and looming shutoffs: In June, Detroit announced a water affordability plan that allowed some residents to pay as little as $18 a month to maintain water service. But residents soon raised concerns with the city’s “Lifeline Plan” because it sets a limit on household water usage of 4,500 gallons a month, adding extra charges when this amount is surpassed. The city also lacks funding to run the program beyond 2023. Detroit Water and Sewerage Department Director Gary Brown said he is advocating to get more funding from the federal government. More urgently, Detroit’s moratorium on shutoffs will expire this year, leading civil rights groups to file a motion in federal court to stop the city from resuming disconnections for non-payment or debt collection. Jacqueline Taylor, a plaintiff in the case, said she doesn’t use a computer and hasn’t been able to reach anyone on the phone to enroll in a water affordability plan. “The loss of water services on and off over the years has caused disruption and mental anguish,” she said in the court filing. (Freep, Bridge Detroit)
Flood prevention: In February, Detroit launched a program to help prevent sewer backups and basement flooding that sent water and combined sewage into more than 32,000 homes in June 2021. The Basement Backup Prevention Program is available in 11 Detroit neighborhoods and provides up to $6,000 per household to install flood control measures like backwater valves. However, the program’s rollout has been slowed due to the number of private sewer and service lines that need to be repaired before valves can be installed, something the city is trying to address with federal disaster recovery funding. As for long-term fixes to Detroit’s flooding problems, experts say Detroit needs to invest in expanded reservoir capacity to temporarily sequester stormwater and build green infrastructure in strategic locations throughout metro Detroit. In Detroit’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood, residents shot down one city proposal to reduce flooding from the Detroit River that would have disconnected some of the area’s canals from the river. Residents feared the plan could lead to foul and stagnant water, negatively impacting homes and businesses. (Freep, Bridge Detroit, Planet Detroit)
Trouble on the Huron: Ann Arbor water users received a scare after repeat offender Tribar Manufacturing in Wixom spilled hexavalent chromium into a creek that feeds the Huron River. Although the spill’s size wasn’t as large as initially reported, treatment alarms were overridden 460 times. Tribar has also been responsible for toxic PFAS that Ann Arbor spends $150,000 a year to remove from the drinking water it sources from the Huron River. Adding to these problems, dioxane contamination from the former Gelman Sciences site on Ann Arbor’s western border continues to spread beneath the city and threaten the Huron River. A recent test found dioxane in a residential well a mile north of the estimated boundary of the Gelman plume. Environmental advocates and local officials say this underscores the need for more monitoring in the area. (Bridge, MLive)
World of concrete: 2022 is closing with a flurry of concrete crushing and mixing projects, including a request by the Moroun-owned Hercules Concrete for a long-term permit for their facility on the Detroit River right next to the RiverWalk. The Morouns are using the site between Ralph C. Wilson Centennial Park and Riverside Park to secure a land exchange needed to build a second span for the Ambassador Bridge. They suggest they will relocate the concrete operation if the deal goes through. However, the concrete operation could wind up at the Port of Detroit site, which the Morouns are also trying to secure, where it could still impact air quality in Southwest Detroit and Riverside Park. Another concrete crushing facility in the Core City neighborhood raises similar concerns about dust and truck traffic, with residents worried the project could add to the area’s already high asthma rates. What’s driving all this concrete action? Michigan Department of Transportation spokesperson Jeff Cranson said it’s likely due to major road-building projects on I-696, I-275, I-75 and elsewhere. (Planet Detroit, Bridge Detroit, Detroit News)
Getting outside: There were also bright spots this year, one of them being the number of metro Detroiters and Michiganders working on expanding outdoor access for Black and brown people. This includes April Campbell, who started the group BIPOC Birders of Michigan, which held its first event in Detroit’s Palmer Park. In Jefferson Chalmers, community advocate Tammy Black continued work on the Manistique Community Treehouse Center and neighborhood gardens. Black says the spaces have been therapeutic for Detroiters still dealing with the psychological toll of COVID. Other groups like Latino Outdoors Grand Rapids and Black to the Land Coalition are working to connect people with hunting and fishing opportunities they may have felt excluded from or lacked the resources to pursue. But barriers remain. “The DNR (Department of Natural Resources) has been relying on traditional communication channels to reach us, but it’s not working,” said Cira Reyes, with Latino Outdoors Grand Rapids. “We need intentional outreach.” (Planet Detroit, Bridge)