Detroit advocacy groups chart a course to cleaner air

Legislators plan to introduce bills to account for cumulative impact, hold polluters accountable.
Playground at Salina Elementary in Dearborn, located adjacent to AK Steel. Photo by Nick Hagen.

A new plan for clean air draws on meetings with hundreds of residents of Detroit, Hamtramck, Highland Park, Dearborn, and other nearby communities who expressed concern about air pollution in their neighborhoods and a desire for lawmakers and polluters to be held accountable.  

Ongoing pollution issues led to Detroit being named the nation’s “asthma capital” in 2022  by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. And the American Lung Association gave Wayne County a failing ozone and particle pollution grade.

This follows a 2016 study from the research collaborative Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE) that found air pollution was responsible for 721 premature deaths in Detroit each year.

The “From Air Pollution to Solutions” planning report by the Ecology Center, Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, and several other groups lays out policy goals, plans for community air monitoring, and messaging strategies to improve the region’s air.

Kathryn Savoie, director of equity and environmental justice for the nonprofit Ecology Center, believes community awareness of the problem has increased due to the COVID pandemic.

“Places like Detroit that have high levels of pollution were more heavily impacted by COVID-19,” she said. “I think it’s really raised the awareness about how exposure to air pollution makes you more vulnerable.”

The report says that a confluence of factors  – Democratic control of state government, growing cooperation between environmental and community groups, and a sense of urgency created by COVID and climate change – make now a decisive moment to act. 

Low-cost air monitors also make it easier for residents to gather information and push for better enforcement and new laws. A primary goal of the collaborative’s efforts is making a case for cumulative impact legislation requiring the state to account for pollution from multiple sources or disproportionate impacts to overburdened communities.

“We need policy change to have clean air,” Savoie said.

And the current legislature seems poised to move on actions that could impact air quality in metro Detroit. The office of House Majority Leader Abraham Aiyash (D-Hamtramck) told Planet Detroit that he plans to reintroduce a cumulative impact bill that prevents polluters from obtaining permits in communities that are already overburdened. He will also reintroduce legislation that requires regulated industries to obtain bonds when applying for a permit. These bonds and their interest would fund redress for any environmental harm caused by the polluter.   

Aiyash said on a webinar hosted by the Michigan Environmental Council that his cumulative impact bill was based on a New Jersey law that requires regulators to evaluate impacts on overburdened communities when issuing permits for things like gas-fired power plants, large sewage treatment facilities, landfills, and scrap metal operations. He said this would be a change from the current system. “We can set up six different facilities that are releasing maximum emissions as long as they are different types of pollutants,” he said.

And State Sen. Stephanie Chang (D-Detroit) recently introduced legislation that would create a state fund with fines paid by polluters to support air pollution mitigation efforts in overburdened communities.

The collaborative planning report also recommends strengthening air quality enforcement, adopting health in all policies, and requiring health impact assessments (HIAs) for new projects.

HIAs solicit input from community members and other parties to evaluate the health impacts of a project. For example, the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits coalition performed a health impact assessment while the Gordie Howe International Bridge project was planned.

Savoie says adopting health in all policies would mean considering health impacts across different policymaking sectors, an approach used in California and cities like Baltimore and Boston.

“That by itself is very different from the standard way of permitting where health is not the first consideration,” she said.

Gathering data and emergency response

More data may be needed to help the groups participating in the air quality collaborative reach their long-term goals of prioritizing resident health in environmental decision-making. 

Groups like the Ecology Center, Eastside Community Network, Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, and others are already working to monitor pollution in different neighborhoods. They’re using a bottom-up approach, where community members identify hot spots and determine the best path forward to look at pollution on a highly localized level.

Darren Riley, co-founder and CEO of the air monitoring company Just Air and co-chair of the Clean Air Collaborative’s air monitoring working group, says communities need to find the right monitors to address their concerns and ensure that residents are collecting quality data. 

For example, the widely-used PurpleAir monitors track particulate matter and could be useful for monitoring truck emissions in Southwest Detroit. But other devices may be needed to track volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from the Stellantis paint shop.

Quality control is another issue. Riley says devices must be properly calibrated by co-locating them with Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) air monitors. He says that any device that will be placed in a neighborhood will first spend four to six weeks at a co-location site to ensure it is accurate and in alignment with the official monitor.

Riley says the data companies like JustAir can provide through online mapping tools can help educate the public about air quality and what thresholds may be harmful, allowing them to potentially protect themselves by staying inside on a day when the Air Quality Index (AQI) is very high. 

The AQI metric tracks five major pollutants, including ozone and particle pollution. It assigns a value between 0 and 500, with values below 51 representing satisfactory air quality, those above 151 deemed unhealthy, and anything over 301 considered hazardous.

Community reporting could also help inform policy and environmental enforcement.

Recently, JustAir users in Grand Rapids’ predominantly Black and Latinx 49507 zip code reported strange odors and were able to alert the network and receive information on how to report the problem to EGLE. Riley also gave residents information on the pollutants likely to be discharged by industries in the area and the specific odors to look out for.

Not all pollutants would be detected by community air monitors. But Riley says, “We are all biological sensors ourselves,” and keeping a record of community observations could inform enforcement actions by EGLE.

It might also help build a case for legal actions like the civil rights complaint the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center filed against EGLE because of ongoing pollution from Stellantis’ facilities on Detroit’s east side. In addition to EGLE’s odor violation notices, the complaint drew on resident accounts of strong odors and physical symptoms.

Community surveillance could also be critical in an emergency like the Marathon Refinery’s 2019 oil vapor leak.

“When something happens, and there’s a release at the Marathon facility, there’s no good way to know as a community member what’s happening,” Savoie said. She added that a warning system could also serve more mundane purposes, advising residents to avoid exercising outside on a bad air day or to call EGLE and report high pollution levels in their neighborhood.

“We don’t have good systems in place for any of them right now,” she said.

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