Two Cities Bound by Industry: Flint, Dearborn are on Opposite Ends in Environment Debate

    DEARBORN -- The neighborhoods on the south side of Dearborn and north of Flint are a study in contrasts. You can tell by what dribbles out of the double dump trucks as they rumble down the major streets.

    In Dearborn, those rigs are hauling steel slag left over from old-line manufacturing that has defined Metro Detroit for decades. In Flint, they're filled with wood chips that fuel a new electric-generating technology for a city trying to emerge from its gray industrial past.

    The two enclaves do share a recent history filled with issues of ethnicity and the environment -- the primary elements of the Environmental Protection Agency's push to make pollution a question of bias. But the old-tech vs. new-tech engines dominating their economies now point to twin challenges facing the EPA's policy.

    In Dearborn, where the industry and the community have grown up together over nearly a century, questions of environmental justice involve longtime residents and businesses. The conflicts are not so much a matter of what new is happening in the neighborhood, but what has always happened.

    North of Flint, where the spark of controversy is an industrial newcomer, issues of race and the environment focus more on what role local residents get to play in deciding the course of business expansion. The battles center on new businesses and how to make community members feel that they are gaining more in opportunity than they might lose in environmental quality.

    That difference -- between old and new -- is just one of a host of complications making the EPA's task increasingly contentious.

    "The complications are endless -- new facilities and old factories, in inner-cities, on city edges and in rural areas, all those issues make each     issue more complicated," said Christopher H. Foreman, a researcher at the centrist Brookings Institution who has extensively studied the environmental justice movement.

    Slag and the inevitable air and water pollution that come with steel and car production have been part of Dearborn's life since steel was first made in the Rouge plant before World War II. Likewise, the Arab community the trucks pass through has been around since the 1930s.

    Activists at Dearborn's Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services (ACCESS) say they view the industries bordering their community as neighbors.

    "We even have a training program to help provide our community with jobs and our neighbors with trained workers," said Kathryn Savoie, environmental director of ACCESS.

    Indeed, some aspects of the relationship look that way. Ford, the largest industrial neighbor to the Dearborn Arab community, has a representative on the ACCESS board and has sent doctors to work with Dr. Adnan Hammad, the medical director of ACCESS.

    But conflicts have been hard to avoid. Earlier this year, ACCESS raised environmental justice concerns with Ford over an update to the paint shop in the automaker's Dearborn car plant. Although the issues were eventually resolved to both sides' satisfaction, the emissions permit Ford needed was delayed by four months.

    Savoie said the Arab community tries very hard to keep the relations cordial and not stand in the way of job creation. "It's in our strategic interest to create jobs. We have 30 percent unemployment in this community."

    It is not usual, however, for neighbors to dump 1.6 million pounds of pollution into the atmosphere. The pollution from 22 companies located within a few miles of the Ford plant make the air smell faintly unpleasant upon arriving near the mosque, the center of the Arab community.

    Savoie cites asthma and other respiratory problems as proof of local pollution's damaging effects, blaming them on air emissions from nearby industries. "There's a lot of anecdotal evidence, but it doesn't take much energy to see this area is toxic," she said.

    ACCESS is working with a local hospital to come up with some hard numbers to back up its anecdotes, in particular to see if the number of emergency room visits for respiratory problems is disproportionate compared to other areas.

    Still, battles with industry are nothing new to the neighborhood. Twenty years ago, Ismael Ahmed, now executive director of ACCESS, suffered a personal loss: his father's house was demolished as local industries and officials tried to turn much of the Arab neighborhood into an industrial park.

    Today, the community still bears the scars from that fight -- in the form of numerous empty lots in neighborhoods that should be full of houses. But getting local residents to agree with their advocates at ACCESS is often hard.

    "People here feel a sense of ownership, sometimes that say we are attacking 'their' industry," Hammad said.

    On the north side of Flint, the neighborhood near CMS Energy's Genesee Power Station is poor with mostly minority residents -- African Americans in this case.

    From the top of the CMS Energy plant, whose potential emissions started the environmental justice fight in the first place, you can't even see the neighborhood that claims to be affected.

    Until the wood-waste power plant came there was only one other business operating on land designed to hold dozens of facilities. But what irked residents, says Kary Moss, the lawyer who represents the Flint area residents, is that the plant was lured into the area by Genesee Township. Residents most affected by it, she says, had no say in the project. And relationships never improved from there.

    Despite the differences between Dearborn and Flint, the health concern was no less real. In Flint, the concern was lead, already a contaminant from past industrial activity.

    Moss contended that adding even a little more lead to the air by burning wood that may have lead-based paint on it would be destructive, because children in the area already showed high levels of lead. CMS Energy and the state of Michigan argued the amounts would be so small as to be unnoticeable. The first level of courts agreed with Moss.

    The irony is that after the rancor caused by the court fight, the 35-megawatt power plant has not used fuel that might have been contaminated with lead for more than a year.

    Race, environment and wood chips

    Burning scrap wood to generate electricity seemed like a fine idea four years ago to national security experts and environmentalists. Now a CMS Energy Corp. wood-chip plant in a poor Flint neighborhood is under EPA environmental racism scrutiny. Here are the original arguments for building such generators:

    * The 1978 Public Utilities Regulatory Act encouraged wood-chip power plants and other alternative fuels as a way of building American energy independence.

    * Finding a use for wood waste -- ranging from fallen limbs to lumberyard scraps -- reduces the strain on landfills. CMS says the Genesee plant keeps up to 175,000 tons of waste out of Michigan landfills annually.

    * Recycling does not end with the fuel for the power plant. The leftover ash is recycled into materials for road construction as well as fertilizer for Michigan farms.
Copyright 1998 The Detroit News, Inc.
The Detroit News
June 29, 1998, Monday
SECTION: Front; Pg. Pg. A4
BYLINE: By David Mastio / Detroit News Washington Bureau