Outside of Michigan, a common attitude toward Detroit seems to be pity. People imagine it is a broken, dirty shell of a city whose glory Motown and Motor City days are long in the past. Pictures in the media show rundown, abandoned buildings, pollution and abject poverty.
In reality, Detroit has many organizations and businesses that are working hard to cast off the rust and turn the city toward a green future. At the same time, the city has a major emissions problem and unlucky zip code 48217, the most polluted in the state and thirdmost in the country. Even as faithful Detroiters work to turn the city around, many believe southwest Detroit is being ignored, its residents sacrificed to appease the big industries with big emissions that have steadily encroached on their neighborhoods.
However, the city might be reaching a turning point with climate and environmental justice activists fighting for change. Will the combination of a climate action plan, a spotlight on the issues plaguing 48217 and other areas of the city, and increased public awareness reduce emissions and revitalize Detroit?
How did this mountain and other examples of industrial pollution ever come to be acceptable? It's pretty simple. In the 1950s, heavy industry began to grow in this area and workers moved to be close to their jobs. Delores Leonard told the Detroit Free Press that when she and her husband bought their house on Bassett Street in 1955, it was one of the few places that African Americans could buy homes (the zip code is currently 85 percent African American, 10 percent Caucasian, 5 percent Latino). She also remembers that people in the neighborhood would cover their cars with tarps to protect them from the soot raining down from nearby industries and pitting the paint. No one thought, at the time, that it could harm their health. Now, this community is rife with cancers, asthma, skin problems, and cardiovascular disease.
Anderson has been a vocal supporter of residents of 48217 and surrounding communities. She has encouraged residents to speak out and tell their stories and implored government agencies to take notice and take action. The biggest environmental justice issue facing Detroit, she says, "is getting someone to recognize it at the authority level where they can actually do something about it. In my mind, that's local, state and federal government. I would like them to do what they are mandated to do, and that's look after the health and well-being of the residents."
Marathon announced in 2007 that it was going to begin a $2.2 billion expansion to enable the plant to process tar sands. There was a hope for jobs, but Anderson estimates that Detroiters received fewer than five of those jobs - and those few went to residents from other areas of the city. Anderson asked that the 48217 residents be given first shot at openings, but the clamor for jobs from all parts of the city made that impossible.
At the same time, Anderson said, Marathon requested and received a more than $1 million tax abatement from the city of Detroit, while 48217 received no relief and watched the dust cloud thicken and their property values continue their freefall. Many have lived in that community their whole lives and are unwilling to leave. Others simply can't afford to as their home's value is not enough to allow them to move. (Listings on Zillow as of this writing had homes for sale in 48217 as low as $2,300, $4,900, and $6,000.)
Anderson wrote about the experience.
Adrian Crawford had known for a long time that something was very wrong in her home. There was an acrid smell in her basement and she and her daughter were sick and coughing all the time. Her neighbors complained of similar problems but repeated visits to the city council resulted in no action.
On October 1, 2010, I attended a press conference called by the State Representative and held on the corner of Liebold and Pleasant. I cannot forget the unbelievable odor (hydrogen sulfur) coming up through the sewer holes; it was enough to stop you in your tracks.
Residents invited us into two homes where we were subjected to odors so strong they drove us back outside, but not before I saw furniture with a yellow green growth and walls painted gold that had turned grey. Outside I passed a home with three small children playing outside. The mother was inside with a newborn infant in her arm. How could this be? We could not allow children to grow up with this and permit a baby, a newborn baby, to breathe this awful odor.
This positive link between blatant pollution and Marathon Oil brought the company to the table, and the company subsequently agreed to buy out many homeowners that were being adversely affected by their operations. Since that time, Marathon Oil has contracted to buy out 13 homes at Liebold and Pleasant, and 480 homes in nearby Oakwood Heights (both in 48217). Anderson admits that those people were lucky to be bought out, but she knew that many of them just wanted to stay and have Marathon clean up its operations so their neighborhood could be livable again.
Anderson sees no evidence that Marathon Oil shows any interest in the community they are affecting. She is not advocating that these businesses close down and take needed jobs away, but that they acknowledge the community they are slowly obliterating, the people whose lives they are impacting and whose health they are destroying.
How could Marathon help? "I wish they would ask them [the community]," Anderson said. Something as simple as moving a school that is too close to the factory to a less impacted area so children would have a cleaner place to learn would be a big step in the right direction.
How does Anderson keep hope alive in these circumstances? Her biggest goal is to work to reduce emissions, but also help the host communities to these industries to reimagine themselves. "What would they like to look like?" Anderson said. "Because no one wants to look like that ." Anderson tells residents that they should organize themselves, speak out and someone will listen.
"These communities, as inundated as they are with industries and the negative impact and the conditions they had to survive under, these are some of the strongest and most thriving communities anywhere. People have pride in their communities, in themselves, in their property. They love their children like anyone else. They want to achieve all of the same goals as anywhere in the U.S. They want to live a full life, not one of illness. And they have victories. 48217 has victories every day."
Still in its early stages, Knott explained that the plan has two main goals: to reduce greenhouse gas emissions for the sustainability and well-being of the city of Detroit, and to increase the resilience of the city's social, built and natural environment.
Why is Detroit focusing on climate change now? Knott believes that Detroit has been facing so many economic issues that this got pushed down the list.
"It's been to our disadvantage, our detriment that there has not been a broader focus on environmental issues and the impact they have on the sustainability of the entire city. You have environmental organizations that have been focusing on it, but it has not been as widely accepted as it should have been. We feel that now is the time to not only engage environmental organizations, but to talk to government, to talk to business institutions, to talk to community leaders and others - a broad array of people to resolve this issue."
"When we look at reducing GHG emissions, we also see this as a way to reduce other levels of pollution in over-burdened communities. By focusing on climate change, we expect to help lift the environmental burden that these communities have faced for far too long."
"A facility may be compliant with certain state and federal standards, but they do not take into consideration all of the other heavy polluting facilities in the same community." Even if each company only emitted what was allowed through regulation, something that Anderson doubts, with so many plants so close together, the combined effect of many types of emissions raining down on the neighborhood can only doom its residents.
Like Anderson, Knott believes that the government (city, state and federal) needs to step in. "I would like to see city, state and federal government (EPA) implement a stringent compliance standard to reduce the amount of pollution in overburdened communities," Knott said. "We need to put pressure on the point sources of pollution, any source of pollution where pollutants are discharged, and make them figure out a solution to ease the burden on these communities."
"One of the things we plan to do through DCAC is tell the story of businesses and other institutions that are adopting meaningful sustainability practices like some Detroit Public Schools. And we're going to highlight those companies in an effort to encourage other companies and other entities to do the same thing.
"Environmental efforts to remediate environmental challenges must be part of the resurgence of this city. If you ignore the environmental challenges that have plagued this city for years, you will never have the city you are trying to create. Environmental justice cannot be ignored in terms of rebuilding Detroit," said Knott.
Andrea Newell has more than ten years of experience designing, developing and writing ERP e-learning materials for large corporations in several industries. She was a consultant for PricewaterhouseCoopers and a contract consultant for companies like IBM, BP, Marathon Oil, Pfizer, and Steelcase, among others. She is a writer and former editor at TriplePundit and a social media blog fellow at The Story of Stuff Project. She has contributed to In Good Company (Vault's CSR blog), Evolved Employer, The Glass Hammer, EcoLocalizer and CSRwire. She is a volunteer at the West Michigan Environmental Action Council and lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org and @anewell3p on Twitter.