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The Fight to Breathe Clean Air in Southwest Detroit

By Carly Oboth

Over the past century, Detroit has undergone profound transformations, largely driven by the evolution of the auto industry. Although the Motor City looks quite different than it did a hundred years ago, the southwest corner of the city is still grappling with the impacts from the area’s long history of being an industrial center; long after the industry exited this part of Detroit, these neighborhoods remain a sacrifice zone. 

The term “sacrifice zone” refers to areas that disproportionately bear the burden of environmental hazards and degradation, often for the benefit of industrial and economic development. For southwest Detroit and neighboring Dearborn, River Rouge, and Ecorse, the expansion of industrial facilities and encroachment into residential neighborhoods created an environmental crisis harming the health and well-being of residents, many of whom are low income and represent already-marginalized identities.

This corner of Michigan is home to a range of industrial operations, including steel mills, oil refineries, and manufacturing plants. The area has some of the highest levels of air pollution in Michigan, with pollutants like sulfur dioxide, particulate matter, and volatile organic compounds regularly exceeding safe limits.

Last month, I joined local government officials and members of the media on a “toxic bus tour” of the many industrial facilities that spew hazardous air pollution throughout these communities.  A newly formed coalition of local environmental justice organizations and community activists called Clear the Air organized the toxic tour as part of a week of action during National Air Quality Awareness Week. 

On the tour, I heard from residents and environmental justice activists that this area has the highest number of asthma-related hospitalizations in the nation. Cancer rates in southwest Detroit, including rare forms of cancer like scalp and nasal cancer, are significantly higher than the national average. These are just a few of the devastating health impacts linked to toxic air pollution.

Clear the Air’s week of action, which also included film screenings, a panel, and a community dialogue was a powerful learning opportunity for me. I had previously read about the horrifying impacts of air pollution on public health, but seeing pictures of community members literally washing the soot from the front of their houses made it seem much more tangible. It’s also completely different to talk with someone who’s lost four of their immediate family members to cancer, or someone who’s had to rush their terrified child to the E.R. because they couldn’t breathe on multiple occasions. 

One of the worst threats to clean air in this community is the Dearborn Works steel mill, operated by Cleveland-Cliffs. This steel mill abuts an elementary school playground where I joined over a dozen local community members for Clear the Air’s week of action press conference. The juxtaposition of the playground and the looming steel mill is striking.

Dearborn Works was originally part of the Ford Motor Company’s Rouge manufacturing complex and was built over 100 years ago. Although the steel mill has changed ownership several times, the technology Dearborn Works uses to make steel has not. This facility’s blast furnace still uses coke, or purified coal, as part of the process to transform iron ore into steel, which also means it generates significant climate-warming carbon pollution in addition to spewing toxic chemicals into the air for local residents to breathe. 

In a few years, Cleveland-Cliffs will need to make a major decision about Dearborn Works: either reline the blast furnace with new refractory tiles, locking in two more decades of toxic air pollution, or invest in modern, cleaner technology that doesn’t rely on burning fossil fuels or toxifying the air for local communities. 

Both of these options require a significant cost for Cleveland-Cliffs, but there’s another kind of cost that needs to be considered—the cost to the local community, not only in lost lives, but also in the form of time and money spent on doctor appointments, pharmacy visits and life-saving treatments, resulting in missed work or school days. 

While Cleveland-Cliffs’ CEO said last year that the company is “committed” to coal-based steelmaking using blast furnaces, investing in fossil-free steelmaking technology is clearly the best option—not only for the planet, but also for residents living near the steel mill.

Throughout Clear the Air’s week of action, I was deeply inspired by all the community activists and residents who continue to work tirelessly to lobby their government officials, hold corporations to account, and ultimately, transform their community into one where everyone can breathe freely and thrive. To me, Clear the Air’s toxic tour was more than an eye-opener, it was a rallying cry, because, as one activist put it, “the right to breathe clean air is far more important than the right for corporations to profit.”