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Environmental Leaders in Michigan Fight to Improve Air Quality in Their Community

The DOJ objects to an agreement to provide millions of dollars in public health benefits to local communities.

The River Rouge Factory, part of the Ford Motor Company, in Dearborn, Michigan, 2008.

The Ford Motor Company's River Rouge Factory in Michigan, shown here in 2008, is one of many industrial facilities surrounding the town of River Rouge.

Christian Burkert / Redux

River Rouge, Michigan, a city that neighbors Detroit, is not the same city full of hope that drew Vicki Dobbins’ parents and other Black families from the Deep South to its factories and steel mills in the 1940s.

“I bet you of 50 or 60 homes, I can’t find five healthy men,” she says. “There was a time when there was a man in every household.”

Now, she asks: “Where are the men? Where are the children?”

Dobbin’s father took a job in the Ford factory in this largely blue-collar town when he arrived, and soon bought a house.

“It was a new community,” Dobbins says. “It was the quintessential African American community. Nobody talked about the pollution.”

But the confluence of steel plants, car factories, power plants, and a refinery have taken their toll. Toxic pollutants linked to cancer, lung illnesses, and other chronic diseases have drained the vitality of the community.

“I’ve never seen so many young people pass away with bone cancer, liver cancer, lung cancer,” says Dobbins. “People in their 20s, 30s and 40s. You think: How can this be possible? This person never drank or smoked and exercised all the time.”

Dobbins and other residents are fighting to hold industrial polluters accountable for these health harms. Recently, they won a major victory: As part of a settlement agreement, a local utility company called DTE Energy agreed to invest millions of dollars in electric school and transit buses, and other community-based environmental health initiatives, along with committing to retiring its three most-polluting coal plants. The community could finally start to see justice served — except that Trump’s Department of Justice is trying to stand in the way.

Left: A man works on an assembly line in 1946 at Ford's River Rouge Complex. Right: Workers arrive by car at the complex in 1946.
Left: A man works on an assembly line in 1946 at Ford's River Rouge Complex. Right: Workers arrive by car at the complex the same year.
Eric Schwab / AFP via Getty Images
A city bus drives past the Ford Rouge River Plant in 2009.
A city bus drives past the Ford Rouge River Plant in 2009.
Aaron Lee Fineman / VWPics via Redux

River Rouge has experienced the kind of economic declines that other industrial towns across the nation have experienced: job losses, weaker unions, and an exodus of young people who grow up there and never return. Per capita income in River Rouge, according to census data from 2018, was about $15,250.

The economic vitality of River Rouge has been sapped. “Now, there are no grocery stores or banks,” Dobbins says. “And no hospital.”

For Dobbins, an environmental study showing that River Rogue was one of the most polluted areas in Michigan provided a huge wake-up call. It revealed that people in her community were dying at higher rates than elsewhere. Seven years ago, she joined the Michigan chapter of the Sierra Club hoping to make a difference.

There she volunteered alongside Deitra Covington, who had joined after attending a toxic tour led by Michigan Sierra Club Regional Organizing Manager Rhonda Anderson. Covington was shocked to find that her hometown was part of the tour.

Covington, 48, was a school administrator born and raised in River Rouge. “I was very surprised that I had been living in this situation,” she says. “We knew the [industrial] plants existed because our parents worked there but not the fact that it was toxic to our health.”

Covington had seen many children suffering from asthma and missing school because of it. “Some had failing grades because of absenteeism. I saw it constantly,” she recalls.

After taking the toxic tour, Covington began holding events to educate the community. She also became active with the Sierra Club, becoming the first Black member of the Michigan Sierra Club’s executive leadership team.

The River Rouge Covington grew up in was, and still is, a town where Black and White people for the most part lived in separate communities.

“Racism existed and exists in River Rouge,” Covington says. “We had a Black side and a White side. We would say I live on the Black side or I live on the White side.” Now, she says, some Black people have moved to the White section of River Rouge but no White people move to the Black side. The percentage of White residents has decreased overall.

Covington is aware of the disparate pollution impacts on Black and Brown communities. But in River Rouge, she says the pollution affects everyone: “There’s no wall keeping pollution out of some communities.”

 Left: A child holds a sign at the Detroit March for Justice. Right: About a thousand people joined the Detroit March for Justice in October 2015 to protest issues including racism and pollution.
Left: A child holds a sign at the Detroit March for Justice. Right: About a thousand people joined the Detroit March for Justice in October 2015 to protest issues including racism and pollution.
Rex Larsen / AP Images

This spring, Dobbins had her own health scare that may have been linked to industrial pollution. She survived a bout with COVID-19, including a couple of weeks in intensive care. Dobbins wonders whether toxic air made her more susceptible to the illness, as research suggests it can.

But now that she’s home from the hospital, Dobbins continues to fight for clean air in her community. Recently, she and Covington have been part of legal negotiations that promise a healthier future for the tri-city area — River Rouge, Ecorse, and the 48217 ZIP code in southwest Detroit.

In May, Sierra Club, represented by Earthjustice, reached a legal agreement with DTE Energy under which the utility committed to closing three highly polluting coal plants. It also agreed to fund air quality improvement projects in River Rouge and neighboring communities, including $2 million for community environmental projects and $5.5 million for electric buses.

DTE Energy offered up this money in order to settle a case that the federal government opened in 2010, and that the Sierra Club — represented by Earthjustice — soon joined. The case alleged that the company violated federal environmental law by failing to install modern pollution controls on its coal plants, thus needlessly exposing nearby residents to high levels of toxic chemicals like sulfur dioxide and nitrogen oxide. These pollutants can lead to premature death, worsened asthma and heart disease, as well as other respiratory illnesses.

Left: U.S. Attorney General William Barr, speaking, heads the Department of Justice under President Trump. Right: Workers clean up part of a 10,000-gallon industrial-grade waste oil spill in the Rouge River in April 2002.
Left: U.S. Attorney General William Barr, speaking, heads the Department of Justice under President Trump. Right: Workers clean up part of a 10,000-gallon industrial-grade waste oil spill in the Rouge River in April 2002
Win McNamee / Getty Images; Bill Pugliano / Getty Images

The Trump administration reached a settlement with DTE Energy that Sierra Club has signed on to. The separate agreement between Sierra Club and DTE would provide for additional air quality improvements. But now, in a potentially precedent-setting move that could jeopardize the ability of heavily polluted communities to get significant redress in future cases, Trump’s Department of Justice is objecting to the utility company’s deal with the environmental group.

Earthjustice attorney Shannon Fisk says he believes the Trump administration’s efforts are all about weakening the power of communities and individuals to advocate for themselves in courts of law.

“The Trump administration and Attorney General William Barr are trying to undermine the ability of the public and communities to seek projects that would improve their air quality and public health following violations of federal environmental laws,” he says. “This is a slap in the face to residents seeking very modest benefits in a community that has had to bear excessive pollution for decades.”

Both Covington and Dobbins are disturbed by the DOJ’s actions. “I feel it’s totally appalling,” says Covington. But she says she isn’t surprised.

Dobbins finds it frustrating that the DOJ is trying to determine what’s best for residents in River Rogue without considering their views.

“How are you going to tell us how we’re going to keep our kids safe?” asks Dobbins. “Why would you stop electric buses — something that’s going to save people?”

Dobbins and Covington plan to continue fighting for their community irrespective of the outcome.

Dobbins is encouraged by the resilience and resolve she sees in emerging community leaders in River Rouge. “We’ve got a new group of fighters,” she says. “We’re not going to back down. We’re not going to go away. They have to listen to us!”

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