COVID-19 brings renewed urgency to the fight over ...

COVID-19 brings renewed urgency to the fight over Detroit’s air quality

As residents contend with high rates of ailments like asthma and COPD, activists see an opportunity to leverage increased awareness brought by the pandemic.

A sign in Robert Shobe’s upper window reading “We want justice for Beniteau residents!”. Credit: Nick Hagen

On the eastside of Detroit, Beniteau Street resident Robert Shobe is watching the construction of the expanded Fiat Chrysler Automobiles facilities rising up over his neighborhood and wondering how much more it will affect his health. 

“I used to be able to look out my door and see a hill with grass and green,” he said, referring to the berm along St Jean St. that was recently leveled. “Now it looks like I live next to a prison…As soon as you open the door, you see six, seven stories of big, white building.” (FCA recently changed its name to Stellantis.)

Shobe said that the pollution from Stellantis, which includes the Jefferson North Assembly Plant and Mack Avenue Engine Complex, and other industries in the neighborhood, burns his eyes, and he’s afraid of what this means for his chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), as well as his for his son who has had a kidney transplant.

Robert Shobe. Photo by Nick Hagen

He’s begun monitoring the air with a Purple air monitor, provided by the Detroit People’s Platform and the Ecology Center, that shares its readings on the company’s online map. He has seen particulate matter (PM 2.5) readings at 200 micrograms per cubic meter or above in an area that already has high rates of asthma. The Environmental Protection Agency classifies any reading above 200 as “unhealthy” for the general population.

The tiny PM2.5 particles are produced by nearby industries, including the Stellantis and General Motors facilities,  as well as cars and trucks. They can penetrate the blood-air barrier and enter the bloodstream, contributing to health problems like lung cancer and heart disease. Trish Koman, an air pollution researcher at the University of Michigan, said that PM2.5 is a “non-threshold pollutant and that means there’s not really a safe level.”

“It’s unacceptable,” Shobe said about the level of pollution he faces on a daily basis. And while his neighborhood has received some money for home repairs and job training as part of a community benefits package negotiated with Stellantis, he doesn’t believe anything is going to make life better for him other than securing help to move to another neighborhood. 

The total community benefits associated with the Stellantis expansion have been reported at $35.2 million, although millions of those dollars came from the city and state, including $5.4 million from the city to demolish 300 homes and $5.8 from the state to “maximize employment opportunities for Detroit residents.” The Detroit People’s Platform said that the total benefits amount to $34.7 and Stellantis is only investing $8.8 million of its own money.

Shobe said that the community benefits process should have started earlier and “done something to mitigate whatever they were going to do here.” Instead, he says the city pushed the deal through, afraid of losing out on jobs from the project, and only adding community benefits as an afterthought. 

Noting the more than $400 million in city and state tax incentives that could go to the company for the expansion, Shobe added, “I’m beyond disappointed with all of this. I think it’s wrong for them to take our tax dollars to kill us.”

The Stellantis expansion on Detroit’s east side and the Gordie Howe International Bridge in Southwest Detroit are moving forward with the expectation that they will increase emissions in already hard-hit neighborhoods. At the same time, COVID-19 has renewed concerns about the health effects of air pollution. A number of studies have found air pollution exposure can produce worse COVID outcomes as well as harm physical and mental health generally. 

And research shows communities of color bearing an outsize pollution burden, while national levels of air pollution have fallen. But with a change of leadership at the federal level and increased spending through COVID relief, some environmental advocates feel this is their moment to push for changes that limit pollution and provide relief to communities that bear a heavy pollution burden.  

Auto painting operations are a major emitter of VOCs and Stellantis will also be adding another paint shop at the Mack Engine complex next to Shobe’s house. VOCs in particular can react with nitrogen oxides to form ozone, a major trigger for asthma attacks and other respiratory problems.  However, the area is already in nonattainment for ozone. In order to comply with the Clean Air Act, the company plans to reduce emissions of volatile organic compounds or VOCs from a facility in the mostly white suburb of Warren, only to increase them at the paint shop in the Jefferson North plant in predominantly Black Detroit. Eden Kasmala, an activist with Detroit People’s Platform and resident of the FCA project’s impact zone, called that “textbook environmental racism.”

In a statement to Planet Detroit, Stellantis spokesman Kevin Frazier said that the “Mack plant will have the lowest VOC emissions rate of any assembly plant in the country,” and that company will plant “1,100 new trees both on our property and within the immediate neighborhood,” which could help buffer against pollution. 

But Nick Leonard, executive director for the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said that it’s safe to assume air pollution will be “significantly higher” in the area around the Stellantis facilities.  “The reason why this is happening is because it’s a majority Black community,” said Kasmala. “There’s no way it would happen in the suburbs.”

Air pollution exposure, respiratory and other illness and COVID-19 in Detroit

For years, groups like the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition and the Detroit People’s Platform have raised concerns about air pollution and pushed changes like the adoption of a city-wide Community Benefits Ordinance for large development projects. 

Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has brought renewed attention to the importance of respiratory health. The Center for Disease Control and Prevention lists lung diseases like asthma and COPD as factors that can make severe illness from the disease more likely. And astudy from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that exposure to air pollution, specifically PM 2.5, over a number of years correlated with an 11% increase in mortality from COVID-19, although a definitive, causal link remains unproven

Data from the city confirms high incidences of COVID-19 in areas like Southwest Detroit that are most exposed to high levels of fine particulate matter and other pollutants.

Truck and car traffic are also a frequent source of resident complaints as well as a major industry in Detroit and nearby suburbs. The arrival of the new bridge to Canada will bring an estimated 50% more traffic than the current border, inundating already polluted areas like Delray with even more emissions.

“The consequences are all borne by the community,” said Simone Sagovac, project director for the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. “It’s the residents that have to deal with the health consequences and increased asthma incidents.”

Dr. Ijeoma Nnodim Opara, an internal medicine pediatric physician serving a predominantly African American population in Detroit, said that the impacts from air pollution aren’t just limited to respiratory conditions. Poor air quality has been associated with chronic conditions like hypertension and autoimmune diseases as well as mental health problems like anxiety and depression.

Dr. Ijeoma Nnodim Opara outside the Detroit Medical Center. Photo by Nick Hagen

“The pollutants, the fine particles, the ultra-fines that get into your system are affecting everything,” Sagovac said. Diesel emissions — which are a mixture of gasses and particulates containing things like PM 2.5, nitrogen oxides, benzene and formaldehyde — are associated with lung cancer. And they could be especially harmful because they’re “released at the human level, where we are walking, playing, doing everything,” Sagovac said.

Studies have shown that children living near highways are at an increased risk of developing leukemia. A 2010 report from the American Heart Association found that living within 500 feet of a highway or 165 feet of a major road corresponded with a 29 percent higher risk of dying of heart disease than living further away. 

Detroit’s plentiful expressways and roads with heavy truck traffic impact residents across much of the city. A 2016 study by the research collaborative Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE) estimated that 69,000 people — or about 10 percent of Detroit’s population — lived within 500 feet of a freeway.

Candida Leon lives on Dearborn street in Detroit’s Delray Neighborhood, close to polluters like Marathon and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department’s Southwest treatment plant. She complains that trucking is her most frequent source of distress. “They’re outside,” she said of the trucks, “but I feel like they’re inside my home because of the smell.” She said that dust from the trucks is so thick that she can taste it. “You can wash your car today and tomorrow your car will be dirty,” she said.

Since moving to the neighborhood 22 years ago, Leon, a 56-year-old nonsmoker, has developed asthma and COPD, which has put her in the hospital for weeks at a time. She said she appreciates the tight-knit community and helped organize for community benefits as part of the Gordie Howe project. But now, thanks to that work, she’s looking to swap her home for a renovated Detroit Land Bank Authority house in another part of the city.

Much of the metro Detroit region is exposed to some air pollution. The entire area is in nonattainment for ozone, meaning levels of this pollutant exceed thresholds set by the National Ambient Air Quality Standards (NAAQS). Portions of eastern Wayne County and southern St Clair County are also in nonattainment for sulfur dioxide under the Clean Air Act. 

Sagovac stressed that cutbacks to air monitoring and the fact that attainment is often determined by county can obscure what is happening at a local level. A 2017 study from the state of Michigan shows that some health problems that are associated with air pollution, like COPD and asthma, are much more pronounced in the city. According to this data, roughly 21% of Detroiters have asthma and 12.5% have COPD compared to state averages of 16% and 8.5% respectively.  

The experts interviewed for this article spoke about PM 2.5 pollution the most. Wayne County was in nonattainment for PM 2.5 from 2005 to 2012. Research in Detroit has shown that PM 2.5 and ozone are the primary drivers of early mortality associated with air pollution, causing 660 premature deaths per year.

And COVID-19 has added to concerns around particulate matter. A much-publicized study from Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that small increases in long-term exposure to PM 2.5 led to large increases in COVID-19 mortality, making those who had lived for decades in counties with high levels of particulate pollution 8 percent more likely to die of COVID than those who lived elsewhere.

Nick Schroeck, director of the Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Detroit Mercy School of Law, emphasizes that not only could COVID-19 impact those with pre-existing respiratory diseases more harshly, but that the airborne virus might also “hitch a ride” on particulate matter in the air and spread more readily. Still, he said that it was likely a combination of factors that contributed to the high rate of mortality from the disease in the early days of the pandemic, including factors like multi-generational households and jobs in factories and warehouses where people were exposed to the virus.

“I think the industrial poverty in a place like Detroit made us kind of uniquely vulnerable to COVID,” Schroeck said, “just because of proximity to other people, the type of jobs people have, the type of public transit, all that kind of stuff that leads to a likelihood of a high rate of spread and, unfortunately, high rates of death.”

Data from the city shows very high case rates in ZIP codes in Southwest Detroit that have historically endured significant pollution, including particulate matter. According to the most recent city data, the 48210 city has the highest rate of confirmed cases in the city, while 48209 is in the top 3. 

Koman, from University of Michigan, cautions that “the evidence is still out” on how air pollution has affected the severity of COVID-19 disease, and that methodological issues with how COVID data is collected make it difficult to definitively establish it as a contributing factor for worse outcomes. 

“We’ve seen in the COVID context that poverty and discrimination, lack of access to health care, all of those are also making worse outcomes,” Koman said, leaving open the possibility that these non-COVID factors, often shared by communities where air pollution is common, are the ones causing increased mortality.

Regardless of how pollution has influenced the spread and severity of COVID, Kasmala of the Detroit People’s Platform said that the pandemic has increased his neighbors’ awareness of pollution, although this hasn’t yet translated into more action at the community level. “Other than it just being a real good learning lesson (in) how Black and brown communities are much more vulnerable…we really didn’t get action,” he said.

What can be done to protect Detroiters?

Whatever success Detroit has reining in the health impacts from air pollution in a post-COVID world will follow on some notable achievements by activists, including the city’s Community Benefits Ordinance, the separate community benefits secured as part of the Gordie Howe Bridge project, and the closure of the Detroit incinerator, which came after years of sustained pressure and legal action. Going forward, the city will likely need some combination of improved monitoring, tougher regulations and enforcement for industry, as well as money to make housing more protective in order to mitigate against the worst effects of air pollution.

Part of the problem in neighborhoods like those surrounding the FCA plants on the east side is that older homes often lack central air conditioning or have leaky doors and windows that let pollution in. According to a 2019 survey by the Eastside Resident Environmental Health Working Group, 37 percent of homes in the area around the FCA plants had no air conditioning, while two thirds of those who had it were using a window unit. For many, the summer months mean having to choose between opening windows and letting pollution in or keeping them closed and sweltering. 

Although the community benefits agreement for the FCA deal provides some funding for home repairs, residents have said that the $15,000 offered per house is not enough and doesn’t even offset the damage caused to foundations and windows by the project itself. Benefits like air filters and new windows are being issued as part of Gordie Howe project, but these only apply to a relatively small area in and around the Delray neighborhood. With the federal government set to give the city of Detroit around $880 million as part of COVID relief legislation, Kasmala is hopeful that at least some of that money will be used for home repair.

Vegetative buffering or tree planting along major roadways and around industrial facilities is another strategy that could protect residents. CAPHE has called for prioritizing tree planting, especially along the city’s freeways and heavily trafficked corridors.

Semi-trucks regularly travel through residential neighborhoods in Southwest Detroit. Photo by Nick Hagen.

“There’s no buffering at all along expressways,” said Alex B. Hill, an adjunct professor of urban studies and public health at Wayne State University. “Even the arterial roads like Grand River, Gratiot and Woodward should have their own kind of buffering (for) the amount of traffic that goes on.”

City of Detroit spokesperson Tracy Lynn Pearson said that the Traffic Engineering Division of the Department of Public Works has initiated a truck route study that has suggested prohibiting truck traffic on streets like Livernois and Dragoon, south of Vernor Highway in Southwest Detroit.

Sagovac said that an overall lack of monitoring and weak enforcement are major problems. 

“Monitoring of air pollutants is very minimal. It does exist, but it’s averaged,” she said. “We rely on ambient air monitoring and averages across counties.”

To make up for this, the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition and Detroit People’s Platform have helped put low-cost air monitors in people’s homes. With these in place,  Beniteau street residents will be able to log changes in air quality as the expanded Stellantis facilities come on line.

But Sagovac also cites a “very old Clean Air Act” which she said has failed to adjust for changes in pollution, as well as problems with the nation’s regulatory structure.

“We have to do more to protect people where this industry is being hosted,” she said. “And one way to do it is to have stronger criteria for permits…looking at both cumulative impacts and the vulnerability of the population, the affected people.”

A common theme for those interviewed for this article was that the permitting process looks at each permit on a case by case basis, largely failing to account for how many other polluting industries were in the area and what kind of health problems residents were already experiencing. An environmental justice screening tool like that adopted by California could be one remedy for this problem. California uses its mapping tool to direct investments and pollution reduction measures to the communities most impacted by environmental injustice.  Activists are pushing for the state to base air quality regulations on a screening tool that places more stringent standards on “environmental justice hot spots” such as those identified in a 2019 University of Michigan study.

Heat Map of Michigan Census Tracts Ranked by Environmental Justice. University of Michigan.

Schroeck said that stronger enforcement and more public attention could also go a long way towards keeping air pollution levels in check. The Biden administration offers a stark contrast to the Trump presidency, where for a period of time last summer the Environmental Protection Agency stopped enforcing regulations.

“I’m optimistic that, at least for the next few years, you’ll see more of a shift and a focus on when companies violate their pollution limits, they’re going to be held accountable,” Schroeck said. This in turn could have a deterrent effect for other businesses when they start to see substantive penalties being issued. He said enforcement actions could involve shutting down facilities until they ensure compliance or even revoking their permits entirely, although he described this last option as somewhat “academic.”

Schroeck added that “public shaming” coming from activists was also potentially helpful. “Companies don’t want really bad PR for a variety of reasons,” he said. “That shift in the movement of calling out bad actors and holding them accountable publicly, more and more, that might have a shift in corporate culture and behavior.”

Political will remains the unknown variable. Schroeck said that in order for the issue to rise to the top of the legislative agenda, lawmakers are “going to have to hear from voters, from their constituents that this is something we should be doing.” Regulatory agencies could also apply some pressure, as Environmental Protection Agency head Michael Regan did recently when he raised concerns about the health impacts of a car shredding operation looking to relocate to a predominantly Latinx neighborhood in southeast Chicago that is already heavily polluted. Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot responded by suspending the permit review for the facility until a health study could be completed.  

Nnodim Opara said this pressure should also be coming from the medical community to convince decision makers why certain laws and policies are disproportionately causing harm to communities of color. Citing air pollution as the fourth-highest mortality risk factor worldwide in 2019, a number of organizations including the World Heart Federation, the American Heart Association and the American College of Cardiology are calling on physicians to advocate for pollution mitigation as a public health measure, a move that some have compared to the public stand that doctors in the United Kingdom took against smoking in the 1960s.  

“We actually are late to the game,” Nnodim Opara said. “People on the ground have been doing this work for years and years. And they have not only a great handle on the problem, they also have a great handle around solutions and recommendations. Are we listening?”

The work that Detroit’s community groups are doing could serve as a roadmap for broader changes in how pollution is regulated in cities and how existing laws are enforced to lower overall pollution levels, but also provide for things like home repairs and vegetative buffering that could give residents more protection. “If there were circumstances where we would see a dramatic shift in the way that we regulate air pollution or the way that we approach violators…you would certainly think it would be now in the wake of this pandemic,” said Shroeck.

With a new president and an Environmental Protection Agency willing to call out environmental injustice, the end of the pandemic could be a moment where government oversight, community pressure and large investments in public health come together to create more environmental equity in places like Detroit. 

“We have to decide collectively as a society —  do we place more value on financial incentives or economic growth,” Schroeck said. “Or do we really put the focus on public health and making sure that at least within the region, we don’t have these disparate impacts where communities of color are overly burdened with pollution.”

Brian Allnutt is a writer living in Detroit. He covers open space, environmental justice, food and gardening.