Early this past Saturday morning, a small group of environmentally-minded students from the University of Michigan decided to see for themselves the ugly side of Detroit. Environmental justice issues are rampant as people and money flow out of the city in torrents. But some people aren’t able to leave and instead must stay where they’ve always stayed, suffering the same horrible conditions they’ve always suffered. My opinion of the City of Detroit, its people, and its problems completely changed after my almost three hours driving around the once magnificent metropolis. We weren’t allowed to get off the bus, but I only imagine that if I were to spend a real amount of time there, my new found opinions and realizations would only be intensified that much more.
Our tour guide for the day was a man named Charles, representing the organization Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, or DWEJ. Charles spent a few minutes at the start of the tour explaining his background with Detroit and environmental justice. Charles grew up on the Lower East Side of Detroit. When he was older, he was unemployed; DWEJ took him in and retrained him, eventually getting him a position as an environmental technician. Charles spoke emphatically as to how much DWEJ changed his life by treating him like a person, teaching him about how the environment works, and how the people of Detroit are affected by environmental problems. For him, his eyes were opened not just to the bigger picture around him, but to the fact that he could do something about it. For the first time in his life, Charles felt like a doer who could make real change in the world.
After receiving such support from the people of DWEJ, he eventually felt that he needed to give back to the community that had picked him up from the bottom. Charles then got involved volunteering in a Detroit environmental justice youth program. Later, this kind of work led him to become a community organizer for DWEJ, providing people who were in positions like his used to be the same opportunity he had received. He also takes the time to provide Toxic Tours of Detroit to inform any interested parties, such as the Divest and Invest Campaign. With that, he took us deep into the heart of Detroit and down into a noxious rabbit hole.
Our first stop was the Detroit Incinerator. The facts concerning this monstrous building are staggering. The Detroit Incinerator has been open for 25 years and has been protested since its planning stages. It consistently emits heavy metals such as Lead and Cadmium, high levels of Carbon Dioxide, and arguably the most toxic pollutant known—Dioxin. The neighborhood in which it’s located consistently has the highest asthma hospitalization and asthma-related death rates of the city. Children are the most acutely affected. Within a half-mile radius of the incinerator are eight public schools, two colleges, and a medical center.
During the heat of the summer, the rank smell that constantly accompanies the burning of the incinerator worsens to an almost unbearable stench. When the smell is bad enough, people can call in and complain, spurring the Department of Environmental Quality to find the incinerator. This is part of the ramifications of the Odor Law Campaign, of which the DWEJ was a large part. So far, the efforts of community calls have blocked approximately $44 million dollars of public funds to the incinerator. However, perhaps the best way to combat the incinerator’s activities is by increasing the rate of recycling with the city. Detroit used to be one of the most outdated cities in terms of its recycling program or lack thereof. However, a citywide curbside recycling plan has been developed but has not yet been fully implemented due to a lack of funds from the recent bankruptcy. Currently, the rate of recycling within the city is between 10% and 12%; DWEJ and others would like to see that number push 80% or more. The more trash that is recycled, the less trash that needs to be incinerated, effectively reducing noxious fumes and cutting off the problem at its head. For more information, check out the Detroit Environmental Agenda (www.detroitenv.org), a document of all of Detroit’s environmental issues, made by various stakeholders and NGOs working together.
Our next stop was the Russell Bazaar, which is a beautifully redeveloped brownfield. A brownfield is a polluted site in a city, often a Superfund site, that had been used for some industrial or chemical purpose—typically either manufacturing or chemical disposal. In the 1990s, the City of Detroit stopped counting its number of brownfields after they passed the 50,000 mark and instead declared the entire city to be one massive brownfield. Because of Superfund liability, many of these sites are abandoned and never redeveloped due to the potential transfer of liability for the pollution to a new owner. However, in the past decade or so, the EPA has revamped its policies concerning this transfer of liability to encourage brownfield redevelopment. The Russell Bazaar was formerly an automotive parts supplier factory built by Albert Kahn. Now, it’s become a weekend flea market and has many residential lofts, meeting spaces, and a theater. There are also many art spaces, encouraged by the students of the local College for Creative Studies. The part that we got to view was a massive mural on the outside of the building depicting a majestic robotic lion—quirky but awesome, like the area itself.
Then we moved on to the Detroit/Hamtramck Assembly plant, owned by GM. The highlight of this stop was the massive solar panel field in front of the plant. The array is part of a partnership between GM and DTE to investigate the efficiency of photovoltaic cells within the context of Michigan weather. (We all hope that their findings are fruitful.) This factory, which is where Chevy Volts are assembled, saves around $15,000 dollars a year from the panels. Not a huge number comparatively, but also not insignificant. Detroit abounds with the possibility for clean energy; with all of its space, Detroit could fit the city limits of Boston, Manhattan, or San Francisco within its borders. Therefore, many more fields of solar panels or rows of wind turbines could easily be incorporated into the city’s energy portfolio.
Afterward, we went to the infamous Packard Automotive Plant, another massive relic built by Albert Kahn. Originally, the building manufactured luxury Packard cars but was bought out by GM in the fifties, who never really did anything with it. Various small companies, including a shopping center, have tried and failed to revitalize the gargantuan building. The plant, another brownfield, has been effectively abandoned for the last twenty years and is considered the world’s largest abandoned building. This fact alone attracts many people there just for the novelty of seeing the largest abandoned building; however, there are many other illicit activities that go on there as well: graffiti, drug use, raves (it was part of the start of the rave scene in the nineties), even parts of some of the Transformers movies were shot there for its desolate and ravaged look. Detroiters want people coming into their city, of course, but for the right reasons. The allure of the derelict Packard plant is not such a reason.
Like other brownfields, redevelopment has been very difficult. According to Superfund retroactive liability, former owners and current owners are both supposed to be liable to some extent for site remediation. Most brownfield buildings can’t simply be torn down because of the reactive chemicals within, such as asbestos. The owner of the Packard Plant has supposedly been in hiding for some time, creating dummy companies to cover his tracks. Charles said that rumor had it he had been tracked down and development might commence—condominiums and/or a museum are two of the proposed possibilities. There are many likely stories though, and these are after all just rumors. Truthfully, no one will know for sure whether anything will be done at the Packard Plant until shovels actually break ground. One thing is certain, though: the site is absolutely massive. I didn’t have full appreciation until we were driving away and I looked out the back of the bus. The building sprawled far into the distance on either side of the road, certainly living up to its 3,500,000 square feet.
The next destination was a humble and unexpected one. We pulled up alongside an unassuming grove of trees on the east side and stopped. Charles explained that these trees had been planted a year ago as a phytoremediation project. “Phytoremediation” is a type of pollutant removal that uses trees to absorb heavy metals present in the top layers of soil. The project, administered by the program Greening of Detroit, spans a ten-year period, with soil testing before and after. Since before the seventies, when lead was outlawed in gasoline, there have been lead poisoning issues in Detroit. Splashes of gas from pumps would run off onto the pavement and settle in green swales, as would lead particles from the fumes. Eventually, almost all of the top layers of soil in the city were contaminated; it takes 30 years for the lead to move one inch farther down in the soil. However, studies have shown that trees can be effective in taking up the lead and other pollutants. Native trees of all kinds are used in the experiment, which is attempting to determine which species absorb the metals the best. Such native species are selected in an effort to bring back the greenness of Detroit that, though once widespread, has now been for the most part lost. Charles mentioned an interesting fact that the greener the neighborhood, the lower the crime rate—another incentive for continued planting in the city limits.
Nearby, we stopped at the Earthworks urban farm, operated in conjunction with the Capuchin Monastery and Soup Kitchen. Charles informed us that Detroit has the urbanest farms in a single city in the U.S. The soup kitchen uses the farm’s produce in its meals and the farm tries to make the community a part of the process. There are many opportunities for community and youth education, such as the farm’s youth beekeeping program. At its core, the mission of the farm and Earthworks is bringing people together to teach and disseminate the tenets of sustainability. In Detroit, the multigenerational communities may not look like much, but Charles urged us to look past that and discover their strength and potential.
Just after that, however, we saw something to shift the serious mood. We got to see something that is the stuff of legend: an actual chicken halting traffic as it crossed the road. You can imagine the comments that were made, but Charles pointed out that farm animals weren’t legal in the city and that the chicken had no formal association with the farm. However, in many of the more sparsely populated regions of Detroit, animals such as chickens and goats are widespread and roam the streets. This, along with several other reasons, is influencing the city to let large swaths of land in the city borders be rezoned to rural and agricultural districts, a possibility we discussed in detail at our next stop.
Much of the problem with the bridge can be assigned to the reckless actions of its sole owner, Manny Moroun. Because he singularly owned the holding company of the bridge, he made all of the decisions concerning it, which wasn’t in the best interests of the surrounding community. Mismanaging state funds, he started construction of an illegal second bridge directly next to the first one; he also decided to build the plaza. However, the community banded together and prevented the complete construction of the second bridge, moving it a mile farther south and thus spacing out the air pollution. The community also managed to pass an anti-idling ordinance to address the issues stemming from the truck plaza. Trucks are now only allowed to idle for five minutes out of every hour. But, like many of the other problems plaguing Detroit, this ordinance proves almost impossible to enforce due to the insufficient funds in the wake of the bankruptcy. However, Charles and the rest of the community still view the ordinance and the injunction on the second bridge as two major wins for the community.
Our penultimate stop was perhaps the most dismaying of the day: the Marathon Oil Refinery, located on Zug Island. This refinery processes the tar sands from Alberta, Canada. Tar sands require the destruction of beautiful Canadian old-growth boreal forests, the consumption of astronomical amounts of water, and the creation of toxic sludge by-products. Thus, the Keystone XL pipeline, a polarizing issue of the day, will affect Detroit by providing the Marathon Refinery, even more, business, and thus more discharge. The refinery, which looked like some dystopian fortress, recently underwent a $2.1 billion dollar expansion and is the heaviest polluter in town—its fumes span the entire city.
But explosions aren’t the worst concern for the residents. The entire island and surrounding neighborhoods are hotbeds of sickness. The plants combine and foment a revolting stench on hot days. Charles said that after one tour, in particular, he was bedridden for two days from the exposure. And that was without even getting off the bus. People are living there with no option to drive away, let alone pick up stakes and move. The area is called “Cancer Alley” due not only to its appallingly high rates of cancer but also to the fact that there are no nearby hospitals or clinics to provide residents with any treatment. The Sierra Club started a picket fence campaign that put a cross in the lawn of every home that had fallen victim to a cancer death—every other house ended up with at least one cross.
To their credit, Marathon has bought out around 300 surrounding homes, worth only about $10,000 dollars each, for an average of $80,000 dollars in an effort to make a half-mile wide green buffer around the area. The price boost is necessary to give these people, many of whom have lived in these homes for generations, the ability to relocate to areas with property values that aren’t worth next to nothing. Buick has done something similar, buying out Oakland Heights in order to erect a green buffer zone around its plant. However, these efforts are not enough. Many families still live under the shadow of these noxious plants and have no other option. Charles and DWEJ are fighting to make the entire area of Zug Island and the surrounding neighborhoods a solely industrial zone. Only then will the unchecked ignorance of environmental justice begin to cease.
The tour ended, however, on a positive note. We had returned back toward the heart of the city, stopping at the Green Garage (www.greengaragedetroit.com). The Green Garage is a sustainability innovation collaborative and green business incubator, focusing on supporting businesses dedicated to the triple bottom line, a style of business that grants equal importance to people, profit, and the planet. The garage also happens to be the former home of the first Model T showroom of the city. The folks at Green Garage give tours every Friday at 1:00 to talk to people about various sustainability measures that they can incorporate into their homes and daily lives. Unsurprisingly, Charles praised the Green Garage as an example of the people and businesses of Detroit doing the right thing, here and now.
And so, the tour ended on a note that clearly rang throughout the entire tour—one of optimism and of communities pulling together. During his closing speech, Charles exhorted us that we could all be true change agents and make real, tangible differences in the world. That by simply being there with him, we were already starting something. And we all believed him. I certainly did.
But it doesn’t end there. We left Detroit incredibly informed about not only its problems but its opportunities. Yet just because those opportunities exist, sitting latent within one of the country’s oldest metropolises, doesn’t mean that they will simply come to be. In the wake of another Earth Day, we all must remember that, whether it’s reading about the many endangered species that may become extinct within the decade on BuzzFeed or whether it’s taking a tour of the environmental justice plights of Detroit, simply being informed is an important first step but is ultimately not enough. Yes, we journeyed through the dilapidated neighborhoods and empty streets with our eyes wide open. But it will take the work of our hands if we want to rebuild a city like Detroit and raise up its proud, resilient people to lead the lives that they deserve.…