After decades of pollution, a community faces unexpected — and unprecedented — opposition from the Department of Justice.
Oct. 9, 2020
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?”
Dobbins’ father took a job in the Ford factory near this largely blue-collar town when he arrived, and he bought a house soon after.
“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 has taken its 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.”
Deteriorating public health in Detroit and the surrounding suburbs has sparked numerous investigations into the causes. In 2012, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality found that the air surrounding River Rouge contains the state’s highest levels of sulfur dioxide (SO2), a toxic gas released by the burning of fossil fuels, which is known to damage human health as well as trees and other plant life. The report attributed those critical levels largely to emissions from local steel and coal power plants.
Dobbins and other residents are fighting to hold industrial polluters accountable for the health harms inflicted on their community. Recently, they won a major victory.
As part of a settlement agreement, local utility company DTE Energy agreed to retire three coal power plants that have contributed heavily to the region’s toxic legacy. The company also committed to provide $5.5 million in funding for clean electric school and transit buses, as well as an additional $2 million for other community-based projects to improve air quality in River Rouge, the neighboring town of Ecorse, and the 48217 ZIP code in southwest Detroit, the most polluted ZIP code in Michigan.
The settlement, though modest, offers hope for a new beginning in River Rouge. Major sources of pollution will be removed, and the city will begin to reclaim its environmental health. The outcome also demonstrated the potential of dogged grassroots activism, supported by aggressive litigation, to address a critical issue for the residents — a model they can build upon to continue seeing justice served.
But just as the community appeared to be turning a corner, word of an unexpected obstacle arrived. Beyond the lingering toxic haze that blankets River Rouge, some 500 miles away in the nation’s capital, a scheme was in motion at the Department of Justice (DOJ) to undermine the agreement.
Political appointees at the DOJ are trying to stand between the residents of River Rouge and the benefits they fought for a decade to secure. Their success would mark a dangerous precedent that threatens environmental progress not only in River Rouge, but also in every polluted community in the country.
Earthjustice is representing the Sierra Club in an effort to prevent this from happening.
River Rouge has experienced the same kind of economic declines of other industrial towns across the nation: job losses, weaker unions, and an exodus of young people who grow up there and never return. In 2018, according to census data, per capita income in River Rouge was about $15,250.
The local economy has been sapped over the decades since Dobbins’ family first arrived. “Now, there are no grocery stores or banks,” Dobbins says. “And no hospital.”
For Dobbins, a study showing that River Rouge was one of the most polluted areas in Michigan was a 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 the Sierra Club. 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. River Rouge isn’t the only place where air pollution is affecting student performance. In cities across the nation, researchers are finding that children who live near toxic release sites and even major highways — disproportionately children of color — are more likely to struggle academically.
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 chapter’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 have moved to the Black side. The percentage of White residents has decreased overall.
Covington is aware of the disparate pollution impacts on communities of color, but in River Rouge, she says the pollution affects everyone: “There’s no wall keeping pollution out of some communities.”
This spring, Dobbins had her own health scare that she suspected was 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 illness worse, as research suggests it can.
After making a full recovery and returning home from the hospital, Dobbins continued to fight for clean air in her community. She and Covington have participated in the legal negotiations with DTE to protect the community’s interests and ensure a cleaner, healthier future.
The $7.5 million offer was made by DTE to settle a case opened in 2010, which the Sierra Club later joined with legal representation from Earthjustice. The settlement was not unlike so many others that have been reached over the decades, when the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has found that a community has been harmed and has supported or allowed remedies.
The case alleged that DTE violated the federal Clean Air Act by failing to install modern pollution controls on one of its coal-fired units, thus needlessly exposing nearby residents to high levels of toxic chemicals linked to premature death, worsened heart disease, aggravated asthma, and other respiratory illnesses. In 2013, the Sierra Club and the federal government added to the case similar claims against four other DTE coal units.
In May 2020, the federal government reached an agreement with DTE that the Sierra Club signed on to. A separate agreement between the Sierra Club and DTE would provide for additional environmental benefits, including electric buses and other air quality improvement measures. The settlement would conclude a decade-long court battle, and the community could finally claim victory.
Even DTE celebrated the moment. In a press statement, Skiles Boyd, DTE’s vice president of environmental resources and management, said: “We want to thank the EPA and the Sierra Club for working with us. This action by all parties will further improve the quality of life for residents of Wayne County.”
The DOJ, however, has now made it clear they do not share the same amicable view. Federal attorneys filed an objection in early July, urging the court to reject the separate agreement between the Sierra Club and DTE. Their filing contends that a community group or individual cannot settle a Clean Air Act lawsuit for relief beyond what the federal government is willing to approve.
On the surface, the DOJ petition appears to be run-of-the-mill procedural wrangling. However, according to Earthjustice attorney Shannon Fisk, it is an unprecedented action that could reverberate across the country.
“This is a big fight, and we need to win,” says Fisk. “This DOJ wants to obliterate the public’s ability to use federal actions to ensure that environmental benefits go to communities that have been harmed by industry. This is a threat to the enforcement of environmental laws, as well as our ability to use those laws to advance environmental justice and address environmental racism.”
The DOJ’s meddling in this private settlement reflects a radical interpretation of the U.S. Constitution — a view that only the executive branch should decide how to enforce our nation’s environmental laws. If accepted by the courts, these positions would affect every city and town in the country by overruling the ability of communities to use federal laws to protect themselves from pollution.
“I find it unconscionable that the DOJ would object to an overburdened community receiving air quality improvements,” Fisk says. He explains that the department’s action threatens to weaken an important tool Congress has given to the public to advocate for themselves in courts of law. “It’s a slap in the face to residents seeking redress for harms to their health and environment. This is especially true for low-income communities of color like River Rouge.”
In August, Earthjustice filed a response on behalf of the Sierra Club challenging the DOJ position. The brief lays out the case that the Sierra Club-DTE agreement advances the Clean Air Act goal of improving air quality. It also cites numerous cases in which courts have rejected the very arguments the DOJ is now making to attack the agreement.
Covington finds the DOJ’s objection reprehensible. “I feel it’s totally appalling,” she says, also expressing that she isn’t surprised.
Dobbins is frustrated that the federal government presumes to know what’s best for the residents of River Rouge while at the same time denying them their hard-won benefits. “How are you going to tell us how to keep our kids safe while objecting to electric buses — something that’s going to save people?”
Both women are resolved to continue fighting for their community, irrespective of the outcome, and they’re encouraged by the strength and resilience of the community’s emerging leaders. “We’ve got a new group of fighters,” says Dobbins. “We’re not going to back down. We’re not going to go away.”
Shannon Fisk, managing attorney in the Coal Program, joined Earthjustice in 2012. He leads Earthjustice in pushing the nation to become less dependent on its aging coal fleet, stopping uneconomic investments in dirty power plants, and making way for untapped renewable energy resources and innovation in energy efficiency.
Maz Ali, managing editor at Earthjustice, is a content and communications strategist who considers his career a quest for positive social impact. He wants to popularize stories and information we can all use to protect our communities and safeguard the natural world.