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The Jobs Have Gone, But Fallout From Industrial Pollution Still Haunts Detroit

Manufacturers spewed toxins into low-income neighborhoods of color and left. Residents are still fighting for cleanup.

The auto and steel industries of the last century once made Detroit, Michigan, a symbol of the U.S.’s domestic mass-production might. Yet they have left another legacy in parallel, one far more ignominious: the legacy of pollution and death, of poisons that to this day are still lacing the city’s air and water, leaching into the soil.

Though Detroit has weathered a notorious population decline, it has always remained the home of distinguished names like Ford and General Motors, along with the operations of a vast array of heavy industries. The industrial carbon emissions from those facilities, a grave danger in their own right, have ascended to the atmosphere to affect all of us.

But in Detroit, for more than 100 years, the silhouettes of mills and refineries and factories have loomed over outlying neighborhoods, and each day their more terrestrial effluents have seeped into and contaminated all that lives there. All manner of chemicals, heavy metals and particulates are still secreting into Detroit’s communities — especially low-income communities of color in Dearborn, a smaller city that the metro area encompasses.

Daily, these communities are subjected to some poisons that are chemical in nature, and others that are social: the corrosive effects of racism, written in policy and practiced everywhere. Chemical contamination has been the price of wealth accumulation in Detroit, where the prerogatives of capital and power have long outstripped considerations of the city’s people — their well-being and their lives. Industry has indeed taken a grave toll, but the very real threat has also galvanized some citizens to take a stand against those industrial Goliaths by organizing to bring about better futures.

A Corrosive History

Steel forging has for a long time (over half a millennium, in fact) relied on blast furnaces, which burn coal, along with coke and lime, to reach the extreme temperatures necessary. Those ingredients make burning carbon inextricable from the blast-furnace process. As a result, global steel industries are responsible for a startling 6 to 9 percent of world carbon emissions. Even before Detroit became Motor City, the toxic fumes of metallurgical industries were already shrouding its skies.

Industrious Labs is an environmental organization that runs advocacy campaigns with the goal of attenuating heavy-industry pollution. Industrious Labs is advocating for Detroit steel plants to replace their blast furnaces with a modern process that involves the use of direct reduced iron and electric arc furnaces; this procedure obviates the need for coal and coke, requiring only the comparatively cleaner lime, and are therefore drastically less emission-heavy.

This is a familiar pattern of environmental racism; administrators and planners all too often treat communities of color like “sacrifice zones.”

Ariana Criste, senior communications strategist for the Industrious Labs steel campaign, spoke to Truthout about the organization’s plan to apply leverage to steel mills via the auto industry, an essential customer. If the auto industry demands cleaner steel, the mills will follow suit.

“We can’t have truly clean cars without clean steel,” Criste said. “So we’re pushing automakers to push for the supply chain commitments that they need to help spur demand.” This is no distant fantasy, as major electric arc facilities already make up the majority of U.S. furnaces, and the transition is underway globally.

Yet in Detroit, at top U.S. steel corporations Cleveland-Cliffs and U.S. Steel (soon to expand even further, as the former is currently absorbing the latter), leadership is doubling down on a corporate strategy that calls for retaining their blast furnaces. The one at the Cleveland-Cliffs Steel Burns Harbor Works will undergo a so-called “relining,” extending its life by 18 years; the same is planned for other company mills.

To date, neither ongoing complaints and lawsuits nor a $1.35 million Clean Air Act fine in 2015 have deterred the multibillion-dollar company from prodigiously emitting carbon. And why would they? Fines that amount to corporate couch change are bound to be viewed as merely a cost of doing business.

As a result of all manner of pollutants, Wayne County, which comprises Detroit, Dearborn, and surrounding areas, consistently ranks last on Michigan county health standards: 83rd out of 83. The Dearborn Works plant is also one of the state’s top emitters of lead and manganese, among other toxins — not unusual in the slightest for the Dearborn area.

Industrious Labs has been operating walking tours of Dearborn Works and other area installations to give activists and officials a sense of proximity and scale. Another stop on the tour is EES Coke, yet another flagrant Clean Air Act violator on the River Rouge’s Zug Island. “Coke ovens release lead, mercury and benzene. They’re responsible for about 40 percent of the carcinogens that are released in the entire blast-furnace steelmaking process,” explained Criste. EES Coke, by lying to regulators and ignoring restrictions, has become Michigan’s second-largest emitter of sulfur dioxide and particulates. Industrious Labs also pointed to the Dearborn Industrial Generation power station, the Ford Rouge Complex, and sulfur dioxide emitter Carmeuse Lime — only a small sampling of the dozens of polluters along the industrial sprawl.

“Slag is put into stacked piles, which blows in the air, and blows all over your house, your car, everywhere. In my house, I have to literally wipe the walls of dust.”

A veritable periodic table’s worth of contaminants is jettisoned directly into neighborhoods that are built, in many cases literally, just across the street. “This is a real environmental justice issue,” Criste emphasized. “This pollution disproportionately harms low-income communities and communities of color that border steel facilities.”

From One War to Another

Environmental activist Samra’a Luqman comes from the area’s Yemeni community, which populates the neighborhood directly adjacent to the Ford plant and the methane power plant that supplies Ford’s energy, known as Dearborn Industrial Generation. Yemeni immigrants make up “almost 100 percent” of the population, Luqman told Truthout. “For over half, their first language is not English. They come, oftentimes, from villages.”

As a result, she pointed out, the community is put at a major disadvantage by the inability to read warnings, participate in public hearings, answer surveys, and much more. She put the results in stark terms: “They’re not aware of air pollution in general, and they’re not aware that they’re leaving famine and war to come and be poisoned to death.”

The Yemeni community did not end up in such close proximity to industry by chance. “We’re surrounded by 42 major and minor polluters,” she said. Immigrants were sequestered there “because of urban renewal policies, redlining, packing immigrants into a certain community, then packing industry over there because you don’t want it in the affluent part of town.”

This is a familiar pattern of environmental racism, observable across the nation. As ProPublica has bluntly labeled it, administrators and planners all too often treat communities of color like “sacrifice zones.” Deaths accumulate in a slow-motion horror as the harms persist, “compounded by the lack of accountability. The air quality here has been in non-attainment [of health standards] for sulfur dioxide and particulate matter for over a decade. Over a decade!” exclaimed Luqman, incredulous.

Just as frustrating as obstinate companies and politicians is the ponderous regulatory response. Delay, disregard and deception have been evident to those confronting the originators of carbon, lead, manganese, nitrous oxide, coke wastewater contaminated with sulfide, ammonia and cyanide, and horrific endocrine disruptors like benzene. Remarkably, Luqman pointed out, regulators of emissions permits have long failed to account for the cumulative impact on public health — how chemicals may agglomerate and interact in unforeseen ways in the environment and the body.

On top of the worst poisons are the constant lesser threats to health and well-being, among them dust, noise and light pollution, with knock-on effects ranging from disease and hospitalization to irritation. “Slag is put into stacked piles,” said Luqman, “which blows in the air, and blows all over your house, your car, everywhere. In my house, I have to literally wipe the walls of dust. On the inside. … What about what’s going in your lungs?”

On top of that, “The smells are unbearable … from the wastewater treatment plant, from the asphalt, from Marathon [Petroleum], to the steel mill,” she said. “In terms of quality of life, it really, really impacts you.”

“Where’s the concerted effort to clean it up?”

In total, the impacts on public health have been demonstrably extreme. Criste cited a study from Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE), which “found that combined exposure in the area is responsible for 721 premature deaths annually.”

Anecdotal evidence tracks with that grim figure. For Luqman alone, “In my family — both my sister, my mother and myself — we’ve all had tumors removed. I have a son. At 6 months, he had a tumor; he had to have that removed.” The area, she said, also has a statistically improbable occurrence of rare nasal cancers. She shared more stories: how neighbor after neighbor, young and old, seems to fall to cancer.

COVID-19, she said, also took a disproportionate toll, given the high rate of respiratory illness, cardiovascular damage and otherwise heightened susceptibility among U.S. Yemenis: “Our older generation has just been wiped out.” Still, the Yemeni community is not alone in suffering.

Private Profits, Socialized Costs

As deindustrialization took hold in Detroit, much of the city’s white population fled the cities for the racially segregated suburbs, taking the tax base with them. Naturally, the jobs and wealth also relocated far from the urban center. The vast population loss of “white flight” and subsequent exploitation left the majority-Black city to face the social consequences.

Theresa Landrum lives in the intensely polluted Dearborn ZIP code 48217, which is right next to Samra’a Luqman’s. Landrum, a leader in the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, told Truthout about the ways that low-income Black, Latinx and Middle Eastern families have been subjected to the injurious effects of poverty and pollution alike. “From the time slavery ended and Jim Crow was instituted, Black people were redlined into undesirable communities,” she said.

As a result, said Landrum, “We here in Detroit, in lower Wayne County, are at the epicenter of the pediatric asthma boom. We have emphysema, we have sarcoidosis, we have diabetes, heart disease. We have high maternal deaths, and high premature death of our children. … How do you stay protected? It’s just a vicious cycle.”

Industrial corporations, and the political leaders who wish to lure them to Detroit, inevitably attempt to sweeten the bitter prospect of their presence with the promise of “jobs.” This is, in Landrum’s experience, a cruel joke. “They always say, ‘Oh, we’re going to provide jobs to build the economy.’ But the jobs they provide, or say they will provide, are really a pipe dream. … As for anyone from 48217 — well, if it was one job, we did good.”

While a combination of strong unions and a strong domestic industrial base once provided a modicum of improved living standards for some people of color, it was far from any mythic “golden age” of prosperity. Whatever long-dismantled benefits workers did enjoy were won only by incessant labor struggle, producing constant unrest. The true precarity faced by Black auto and manufacturing workers often goes underappreciated.

“Profits are put over people’s lives.”

Just as industry had helped Black workers the least, disinvestment and decentralization hurt them the most. Privatized profits disappeared with the departure of the white elite, and Detroiters were left to bear the socialized costs. This degradation of their circumstances, paired with rampant, active racism and segregation, locked people of color into decades of poverty. The jobs are long gone. “But the pollution,” said Landrum, “has not changed.”

She pointed out another process that has entrapped poor people of color — why they can’t simply “move away,” as opponents often jeer. Factors like the expense notwithstanding, Landrum described how a certain feedback loop operates: as a neighborhood grows ever-more polluted, residents’ housing values continuously shrink, making the prospect of moving elsewhere unaffordable. In turn, as the polluted land grows cheaper, more hazardous industry moves in. It is another impossible bind that intersects with other debilitating cycles of poverty.

Landrum agreed with Luqman: altogether, she stressed, the many dozens of industrial facilities in and around the Dearborn area produce an aggregated effect, more than the sum of its parts. “Regulatory agencies like EGLE [the Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy] — they often do not consider cumulative impacts,” she said. “They evaluate each company individually: they set a standard for sulfur dioxide, for benzene, nitrous oxide, lead. I feel that they should look at all the companies and chemicals holistically.”

Landrum has no doubt about mounting effects. She has regularly collaborated with scientist, activist and fellow 48217 resident Dolores Leonard on air monitoring and other projects. From one installation, she said, “We charted over 150 chemicals found in that air. Toluene. Benzene — which, on any level, is harmful to human health.”

“Where’s the concerted effort to clean it up?” Landrum asked. The question should not have to be asked rhetorically. And yet, the companies “just left it in communities like mine: Black, low-income communities … 20 years ago, what we were fighting for, we’re still fighting for now.”

The Fight for Decontamination

For years, Landrum, Luqman and their fellow activists have been organizing to fight back in every way they can: petitions, marches, letters, public comment, rallies, protests, press conferences, city council meetings, lobbying, and more. Both also assisted with recent “toxic tours” of Detroit that have been led by Industrious Labs. Beyond the tour, Industrious Labs, for their part, is also campaigning for changes at the policy, regulatory and legislative levels, pushing for emissions cuts not only in steel production, but also for aluminum, cement and methane.

In Detroit, local activists have indeed found success in winning some policy changes and health protections over the years. Thanks to Clean Air Act enforcement, in a rarity, ozone pollution actually decreased last year in the city as a whole, though Wayne County does remain a hot spot. In metaphorical and sometimes literal ways, Detroit’s decline has cleared the ground for renewal and regrowth.

“I don’t know how people at the top live with themselves, knowing that there’s a better way, that could literally save lives — and they just choose not to do it. Because of money.”

Luqman herself lost a bid for city council, but her tireless campaigning for other causes continues. She helped win a grant that allowed for planting dozens of trees and has collaborated with Michigan academics on pollutant monitoring programs, as well as a campaign, nearing completion, that will provide indoor air purifiers to residents. Another effort involves pushing for emitting facilities to upgrade their electrostatic precipitators (ESP), a pollution mitigation mechanism.

Meanwhile, Landrum and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition are working with some environmentally conscious local legislators, State Sen. Stephanie Chang and State Rep. Abraham Aiyash, to craft legislation that they hope will address the pollution’s cumulative impacts. As a model, Landrum pointed to a law in New Jersey, passed in 2020, which explicitly addresses those effects. Michigan House Rep. Rashida Tlaib has reintroduced a similar act in Congress.

“We’ve had some victories,” said Landrum. “But the loophole is the self-reporting. That’s the fox watching the henhouse. And it’s always based on money.”

As Luqman said, “It’s a matter of them wanting to invest in this — and the cost of a human life. How much is a human life worth? Is it worth $100 million, to replace the ESP? Is it worth $1.3 million every ten years? … Only $250,000?” (She was referring to the $1.3 million fine, paid largely to the state, by Dearborn Works Steel Mill in 2015, when it was owned by AK Steel. The fine included only $250,000 for a local improvement project to serve as community reparations.)

Because of these intractable financial incentives — incentives that are, fundamentally, those of private property and capital — only radical changes will correct such flagrant and willing violations.

Corporate leadership has made it all too clear that transformative change will not come willingly — solutions will have to be imposed from without. Time and again, their actions have testified to the fact that they are ready to sacrifice lives in the name of profit. The origin of such an inhuman impulse, in Landrum’s words, is: “Capitalism! Money! Like Leonard always says, follow the money. Profits are put over people’s lives.”

Luqman, too, sees a need for repercussions and reforms far more comprehensive than the occasional light fine. “I think that clean steelmaking is the minimum that should be done,” she said. “How much money would be worth it to you to save your child’s life? I don’t know how people at the top live with themselves, knowing that there’s a better way, that could literally save lives — and they just choose not to do it. Because of money.”

Note: A change was made to fix an error in the name of Cleveland-Cliffs Steel Burns Harbor Works and clarify details about the process involving electric arc furnaces.

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