Theresa Landrum’s neighborhood in the shadow of the Marathon Oil Refinery. Photo courtesy Landrum.
Theresa Landrum’s neighborhood in the 48217 zip code is surrounded by polluters like AK Steel and Marathon Petroleum. She says that her community is dealing not only with the rapid spread of the coronavirus, but also a high prevalence of underlying conditions such as asthma that could make the impact of the virus even deadlier.
“It’s like popcorn popping, hot spots everywhere,” says Landrum, a local resident, and activist, about the spread of COVID-19 in Detroit, which has emerged as one of the worst outbreaks in the country with thousands of cases and a growing number of fatalities. Landrum is a resident and activist with the 48217 Community and Environmental Health Organization.
Theresa Landrum. Courtesy photo.
A 2016 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says that Detroit residents were 29% more likely to have asthma than the state at large, and were three times more likely to be hospitalized for asthma.
And the federal government may be about to make this problem worse. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) recently issued a memo that Cynthia Giles, former head of the EPA’s Office of Enforcement during the Obama administration says is “essentially a nationwide waver of environmental rules for the indefinite future”. Others have accused the Trump administration of going “full shock doctrine” and exploiting the COVID-19 crisis to advance a “pro-polluter agenda”.
But the situation in Michigan has the opportunity to be better than in some other states because it enforces its own air and water permits, according to Nick Leonard, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center (GLELC).
“EGLE (Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy) is responsible for most of the enforcement activity in Michigan regarding air polluting facilities,” Leonard says. “We’re hoping that they’re not going to be following the EPA guidance, that they’re going to be pursuing enforcement as they always have.”
Nick Assendelft, Public Information Office for EGLE, says “we’re still doing what we have to do statutorily under state regulations.” But he adds that “we are going to be crimped in some ways” as employees for the department are working from home and have to navigate the safety issues that come with doing site inspections during a pandemic.
“During the COVID-19 response, regulated entities are expected to maintain compliance with environmental regulations and permit requirements to protect Michigan’s environment and public health,” Assendelft wrote in an email. “EGLE understands that disruptions to standard operations may create challenges for regulated entities to meet some legal obligations.”
To address these challenges, Assendelft says that EGLE has established an email box at EGLE-EnforcementDiscretion@mi.gov to accept requests for regulatory flexibility from permittees who face “unavoidable noncompliance directly due to the COVID-19 emergency.”
“In response to those requests, EGLE may consider extending reporting deadlines, waiving late fees, and otherwise exercising enforcement discretion,” Assendelft.
Leonard is concerned that EGLE plans to go ahead with permitting during the crisis, replacing public meetings with virtual ones. Assendelft says that public comment periods have been extended for some permit applications. However, a permit hearing for GM’s Hamtramck assembly plant is still planned for April 30, even though the roughly 40% of Detroiters who lack internet access may not be able to attend the online meeting or submit their comments via email.
Regina Strong, EGLE’s Environmental Justice Public Advocate, says that EGLE is currently looking into other ways to engage the public for the GM Hamtramck permit hearing and other meetings and that holding the public meeting on the April 30 online “doesn’t mean that we won’t evolve that process and do additional things.”
AK Steel also has an upcoming hearing to increase the limit of lead and manganese that they can legally discharge into Detroit’s skies, something that could come at a particularly bad time for neighborhoods dealing with the coronavirus and underlying health issues like asthma.
Leonard says that the GLELC is pushing EGLE to delay this hearing, as well as the Hamtramck one, for as long as possible so “that community residents can be properly engaged.” He notes that the AK Steel permit is especially concerning because lead and manganese are “two serious pollutants” and the facility has already surpassed legal limits for both, according to tests from October and November of 2019 that were obtained by GLELC.
Meanwhile, Theresa Landrum and others in her neighborhood are forced to confront the threat of potentially worsened air in their community while simultaneously working to prevent COVID-19, facing hurdles like water shutoffs and a lack of testing for the virus.
Landrum says the group Frontline Detroit is helping deliver food, water, and medication to seniors in the 48217 area, dropping them off on front porches so that vulnerable people can avoid exposure to the coronavirus as much as possible. Still, she worries that undocumented people in the neighborhood may not be seeking testing, out of fear of being reported to immigration or because a doctor’s order and ID are required.
Others have noted that the heat map of COVID-19 cases for the city shows a large gap in Southwest Detroit where many immigrants live. Landrum adds that notices from the city for water service reconnections–which could help people wash their hands and prevent the virus’ spread–have only been in English so far, potentially missing the area’s Spanish and Arabic speaking residents.
“How is it that companies are still able to submit and seek permits to install during a crisis?” Landrum asks. “That means you’re putting more vulnerable communities in a worse situation.”
Yet, as bad as all this is now, Michigan is still likely weeks away from seeing COVID-19 cases peak, meaning the changing situation may force EGLE to reconsider how it manages permitting and enforcement.
“If anything,” Leonard says, “we should be more diligently enforcing air quality laws and regulation, not less diligently.”