Ask Planet Detroit: How do we regulate air quality...

Ask Planet Detroit: How do we regulate air quality in Detroit?

cloudy sky, horizon sunrise

Dear Planet Detroit,

There’s a lot of air pollution in my neighborhood. How is air pollution regulated and how can I get involved in fighting for cleaner air?



Dear Coughing,

As many traveled outside for cook-outs, fireworks, and sunbathing on July 4th, it wasn’t just the smell of barbeque that filled Metro Detroit’s air —  July 4 also had the highest measured Air Quality Index (AQI) in 2020.  Some of that pollution may have come from the use of personal fireworks.

Over the past 20 years, the Detroit region has improved air quality overall. But summer months still bring higher levels of air pollutants. Increased solar radiation causes ground-level ozone to spike, and stagnant air currents can trap emissions and increase concentrations of particulate matter and gaseous pollutants.

So how do we measure air pollution, and what do the numbers mean?

What is the Air Quality Index (AQI)?

The Air Quality Index (AQI) is the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) index for reporting ambient air quality. The larger the value, the greater the health concern.

Air samples are taken at sample sites in a network operated by the Air Quality Division of the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy.

There are 5 pollutants that are factored in to the AQI measurement: 

ground-level ozone

particle pollution (also known as particulate matter, including PM2.5 and PM10), 

carbon monoxide, 

sulfur dioxide, and 

nitrogen dioxide. 

For each of these 5 pollutants, an AQI value of 100 marks the national air quality standard for that pollutant set by the Environmental Protection Agency to protect public health. Once ambient air exceeds the level for that pollutant, its component of the AQI exceeds 100. The individual indices are summed to give an overall AQI.

The AQI is ranked by 6 levels:

  • 0-50; Good
  • 51-100; Moderate
  • 101-150; Unhealthy for sensitive groups
  • 151-200; Unhealthy
  • 201-300; Very unhealthy
  • 301 and higher; Hazardous

SOURCE: EPA; Graphic by Eve Washington

On July 4, the AQI was 156 AQI, putting it in the unhealthy category. The main pollutant on July 4th was PM 2.5, particles with a diameter less than 2.5 micrometers, often generated as a result of burning fuel and other chemical reactions. It is dangerous because its small size means it can travel deep into the body, often reaching the lungs, and cause irritation. 

In Michigan, the Air Quality Division (AQD) of Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) tracks and regulates sources of air pollutants in Michigan. EGLE hosts public hearings and receives public comment on air pollution permit applications as critical parts of their permitting and enforcement processes. 

Challenges to community participation in air quality regulation

“One of the things that we’ve consistently heard from residents and in and around Detroit on the Metro Detroit communities, is just how difficult it is for them to engage with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) on air quality issues,” Nick Leonard, the Executive Director at the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center (GLELC), tells Planet Detroit.  

Leonard says that information regarding air quality actions can be difficult to find, and public notices about new permits or enforcement actions often come too late for meaningful public participation. 

“[EGLE] would hold a lot of public hearings in and around Detroit—for permits they were planning to issue, or enforce actions that they were taking—but residents didn’t really feel well equipped to participate in those processes.” 

Jennifer Dixon, an air quality liaison at EGLE, recognizes this barrier, and told Planet Detroit that her team has tried many different things to make accessing this information easier, such as providing translations of documents. But she admits that there is still more that can be done. A big example: the EGLE website and databases can be difficult to navigate. 

“[Permits are] always available for people to look at during the process. It’s not the easiest to find,” she says. “I always tell people if you’re looking for something, just call me and I will tell you where it is.”

Leonard points out that not everyone, particularly low-income and marginalized communities,  has the time and savvy to reach out or search AQD’s website. To try and make finding documents easier, GLELC has created its own easy-access trackers Air Permits and Enforcement actions by EGLE on its website covering Wayne County.

“There were a number of issues involved with the public participation process that led to community residents feeling this frustration.” Leonard said. “So we created the enforcement tracker and the permit tracker to try change that dynamic and make sure that for those types of decisions in Wayne County, at the very least, our residents could have the opportunity to talk about things at the front end and hopefully get some input.”

By getting information to communities and activists earlier in the permitting process, Leonard says he has seen more effective community engagement in air quality issues. For particularly contentious issues, GLELC goes the extra step to reach out to community members to make sure the community is aware of a new action.

“We can do more groundwork with community members so that they’re prepared to engage with EGLE, and they can do that sooner rather than at the last second,”  he told Planet Detroit. “Basically residents will be better able to participate and make him have a meaningful input [that leads] to changes.”

EGLE said it is aware of how challenging it can be to engage in the public discourse part of the AQD’s work, especially because EGLE has many concerns to factor into its actions. 

“It is overwhelming. So we try to make it accessible,” Dixon said. She notes that EGLE must balance its responsibility to protect the environment with “this sort of economic responsibility. So we have these like two dichotomous things that are, a lot of times, butting heads with each other.” Dixon says. 

“Nobody wants to go to a public meeting where you put people’s health and wellbeing in one hand, and the economy in the other hand, and you say ‘these have to level out’. Like, that’s not okay.”

In handling these difficult situations Dixon stresses she and her team do what they can but are often limited by the law and the rules.

“A lot of times we don’t agree with the rules either,” she says.  “Some things we can change and some things we can’t. So we try to work within those confines.” 

COVID-19 has put new obstacles, and new urgency, to public engagement and all parts of air regulation in Michigan. 

Dixon says that having to work remotely has given more room and time for communication — but has also introduced several other issues.  

“We can offer more times to communicate, but that doesn’t necessarily mean people are taking advantage of it or that it’s something that is comfortable for them or available for them.” she says. “We’re really struggling with  how to speak to some of our communities that have limited internet access, limited phone minutes, things like that. We don’t necessarily have the ability to go to their house and have a conversation or come to their community center and have a conversation.” 

“Coronavirus made it more urgent,” Leonard said. He points out that there are intersections between air quality and COVID-19 — people that are exposed to high levels of air pollution are more at risk of severe illness. 

Leonard hopes in the future that EGLE will provide easier access to files, perhaps using its tracker as a model.

“We’re encouraging EGLE to take up some of those tools that we’ve developed and to do them on their own…it’s their duty, I think, as a public agency to make sure that their decisions are fully transparent.” 

While GLELC’s tracker only covers Wayne County, Leonard also recognizes that there are residents in other counties throughout Michigan with the same concerns.  For those interested in learning more, Leonard says the best way to get involved as a community member is by going to public meetings and reaching out to activists. 

“Engage with the process,” he said. “You could do that by showing up when EGLE has a public hearing about an air quality issue, seeing who else is there, talking with EGLE staff, talking with other community members, just sort of getting familiar with the community of advocates that exists around you.”

Planet Detroit is tracking upcoming meetings and deadlines to help you get involved.