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Perspective: More in-depth reporting on air pollution in Michigan's Wayne County could save lives

Perspective: More in-depth reporting on air pollution in Michigan's Wayne County could save lives

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DETROIT — Air pollution from industrial sources in Michigan’s Wayne County is linked to deaths and life-threatening respiratory diseases.

Yes, that is right. Air pollution is killing people. It spares no one. Not even the innocent children who have fallen victim to dangerous toxins emitted from power plants simply because they live in the region’s low-income, most-polluted ZIP codes.

In 2014, the Clean Air Task Force examined the deaths and other adverse health effects and costs attributable to the fine particle air pollution resulting from power plant emissions in Wayne County. Deaths, 70; heart attacks, 110; asthma attacks, 1,400; hospital admissions, 47; chronic bronchitis, 43; and asthma ER visits, 98.

As part of my project for the 2014 National Health Journalism Fellowship, I wrote a four-part series, “Fighting for the Right to Breathe Clean Air.” In my series, I referenced several studies that show the relation between pollution in Wayne County and life-threatening health conditions.

After the series was published, I reported on a study conducted in 2014 by Wayne State University researchers that concluded the pulmonary health of Arab Americans living in the Southend of Dearborn is adversely affected by environmental factors.

There is a lot of data that shows the impact of pollution in Wayne County, so why isn’t the local mainstream media doing more in-depth environmental reporting that exposes the plight of residents in these communities?

I asked this question over and over again as I reported on environmental issues in the region for six months and spoke with residents who told me devastating stories about how they believe their mothers, fathers, daughters, brothers, sisters, grandparents, friends and neighbors have suffered severe — and sometimes fatal — health issues because of pollution.

I found it incredibly troubling that I uncovered so many environmental issues that would have gone unreported otherwise and which are critical to human lives.

There isn’t enough in-depth environmental reporting being done on pollution in Wayne County. This is not acceptable, considering the toll pollution has taken on people’s health.

I encountered several people who denied air pollution in Wayne County impacts peoples’ health. The mayor of Dearborn leads a city that is home to an area with the worst air quality in the state, but he told me he never commented when a controversial emissions permit was issued to the former Dearborn-based steel company Severstal because there was no data to show air pollution impacts local residents’ health.

Two elementary schools are located across the street from the facility, but school administrators and the school district told me they couldn’t comment on the third part of my series about the impact air pollution has on students because they weren’t aware of any data to prove there are issues. In that part of my series I published a study showing air pollution from industrial sources jeopardizes children’s health and academic success.

Speaking out against the impact of pollution doesn’t benefit the cities or school districts, for obvious reasons.

It is time for the people who are purportedly serving residents in these communities to stand up and join in the fight against air pollution caused by heavy industries, rather than deny that it exists.

Companies must comply with state and federal environmental laws in order to prevent air pollution violations. There should be no exception to the law when it comes to billion-dollar companies.

More in-depth environmental reporting will help put pressure on these companies and regulators, including the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), which many residents feel have neglected them.

We have to be the watchdogs for these companies and monitor them because — as I learned over the last several months — regulators are not enough.

In part four of my series, I published emails between the MDEQ, Michigan Economic Development Corporation and Gov. Rick Snyder that show the state's business-promoting agency and Snyder were involved in the state environmental group's permitting process.

The state environmental agency should act independently when making decisions on granting permits and not be influenced by outside sources, which is contrary to what the emails showed.

A part of Wayne County is failing to meet air quality standards for sulfur dioxide. DTE Energy is responsible for 85 percent of sulfur dioxide emissions in the county. As I reported in part two of my series, DTE Energy’s River Rouge and Trenton Channel coal plants are the major contributors.

According to the Sierra Club Detroit Chapter, MDEQ’s draft permits for DTE’s River Rouge and Trenton Channel coal plants required relatively little reduction in the amounts of sulfur dioxide those plants have been emitting; and MDEQ’s own analysis acknowledges that the proposed limits would be inadequate to bring Wayne County into compliance with air quality standards. It is time regulators put the interests of residents before corporations when issuing emission permits.

The mainstream media has to focus more on pollution in Wayne County. People are getting sick and dying.

What can happen when we dig a little deeper

After my series ran, a fire broke out at AK Steel’s facility in the Southend of Dearborn. Local news outlets reported the fire and got a statement from AK Steel.

However, when I looked into it in more detail I discovered that the air quality monitor at Salina Elementary School, which is located across the street from the plant, doesn’t test for sulfur dioxide even though the facility is located in the part of Wayne County failing to meet air quality standards for the toxic gas. The facility was listed as one of the main emitters of sulfur dioxide in that part of Wayne County.

Since the air quality monitor does not test for sulfur dioxide, there is no way of telling whether emission levels violate state and federal environmental laws. What other toxins are AK Steel’s facility and other plants in Wayne County emitting for which air quality monitors are not testing? Are air quality monitors in the region really working the way they should?

I plan on writing an upcoming report on this.

Expanding reporting's impact and reach

New America Media, a national collaboration of 3,000 ethnic news organizations, shared parts of my series.

I encouraged local environmental activists to create social media accounts that residents can use to report air pollution violations. Residents have been able to post breaking news about air pollution violations as they happen through Twitter and Instagram accounts.

I created a 15-minute documentary that exposes the plight of residents. The video, "Fighting for the Right to Breathe Clean Air," was posted on YouTube along with links to all four parts of my series. The video features interviews with residents.

I worked with environmental groups to hold a community forum where residents were taught how to report air pollution violations. Parts of my series were distributed at the event, along with information about sulfur dioxide emissions in Wayne County. My series helped get the Arab American community environmentally active as people witnessed their neighbors taking action, pushing them to do the same.

Since my series was published, Arab Americans have participated in public forums on air pollution that impact communities outside Dearborn. Sierra Club Detroit Chapter representative Rhonda Anderson called a recent public forum on air pollution in River Rouge historic because it was the first time Arab Americans from Dearborn and residents from other communities came together to fight for the same cause. The organization reached out to our paper before the forum to raise awareness on the event.

Make sure your news organization is fully committed to supporting your project. Otherwise, you will experience difficulty expanding the impact and reach. It can be difficult to take on such a complex project by yourself and if you need somebody to make a video for you, make sure you check out his or her work first.

Moving forward, I plan on getting the community involved in more of my work.

Giving voice to the voiceless

Southwest Detroit resident Vincent Martin's brother recently died. When I interviewed him for my fellowship project at his home he told me about all the health problems his brother suffered and how he believed air pollution had contributed to his death.

I will continue raising awareness on environmental issues in Wayne County because it is too important to people like Martin, who for decades fought heavy industry over pollution concerns.

These people need our help. They are voiceless and need to be heard — the type of people we became reporters to serve and whose stories we should be bringing to people’s attention.

Can you help them through environmental reporting?

[Photo by Georgie Pauwels via Flickr.]


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Thank you for your efforts in my home state of Michigan. I will use your work/data in my lectures to health professionals. Keep up the efforts!

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