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Coronavirus shutdown not yet helping air in Michigan’s most toxic ZIP code

In Beirut, the smog cleared and the sky turned blue. In Venice, the usually murky canals ran clear. In Beijing, NASA satellites detected a dramatic drop in nitrogen dioxide pollution. 

These environmental rebounds, the result of work stoppages and stay-at-home orders around the globe that stalled industrial activity and emptied highways of traffic, have been cast by some as a silver lining to the devastating coronavirus pandemic and a sobering reminder of the ways business-as-usual economic activity can wreak havoc on planetary and human health. 

But in southwest Detroit, which includes Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code

So far, the environmental rebound has been far less dramatic. 

It’s a corner of the city in which primarily Latino and African-American neighborhoods butt up against a host of industrial sites and a busy freeway. Instead of clearing up during the state lockdown, environmental and public health advocates worry the COVID-19 shutdown will create an opportunity for area industries to seek looser pollution controls while the virus consumes public attention and regulators move public hearings online to promote social distancing.

Already, federal regulators are rolling back existing environmental controls in the name of jump starting an economy hobbled by the pandemic. 

“People deserve to have input, and I’m worried, because a lot of folks don’t have Internet access or the bandwidth to engage right now,” said Justin Onwenu, a Detroit environmental justice organizer for the Sierra Club. 

An underwhelming rebound ... so far

Traffic on Metro Detroit's typically clogged freeways has certainly plummeted, and with it the daily emissions of toxic diesel fumes, particulates and greenhouse gases. Beyond that, more than a week into Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s statewide stay-at-home order, there has been no obvious reduction in air pollutants at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy air monitors near the highway, nor around the factories of southwest Detroit. 

Susan Kilmer, air monitoring unit supervisor for the state environmental department, said the indetectable change likely points to pollution controls already in place at American industrial sites by federal mandate. In other words, Detroit’s air quality, while troubling, is generally better than Beirut and Beijing’s, so any lag in pollution is comparatively underwhelming. 

“It’s not going to be as dramatic as places like China, where some of their industries are not as well-controlled, so you see a really big change,” she said. 

Community advocates also cite the partial nature of Michigan’s stay-at-home order, which allows “essential” business to stay open. Those deemed essential are defined broadly, encompassing farming and food processing as well as oil refining, energy, hardware sales and — pertinent to southwest Detroit and downriver communities — chemical manufacturing. 

In the hardest-hit areas of China, by contrast, the entire economy virtually shuttered. Italy banned movement inside the country.

“There hasn’t yet been an absolute stoppage of activity at industrial facilities, or a big stop in trucking,” said Maggie Striz Calnin, who runs the healthy air program at the nonprofit Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. “Part of that is just from necessity: We still need to move food and resources so people can get what they need.”

Under the federal Clean Air Act and state regulations, certain facilities are required to report emissions and track air pollution in areas surrounding their facilities. They include Marathon Petroleum’s Detroit refinery, which has long faced public outcry for repeatedly violating state and federal air quality standards and causing problems with noise and odor. But those statistics aren’t published in real-time, and a Marathon spokesman would not tell a Bridge reporter whether the company has scaled back production in Detroit in response to the shutdown. 

A spokesman for DTE Energy, which owns coal-fired plants in River Rouge and Trenton, said the shutdown has led to “no changes” in the company’s energy production. 

But give it a month, said Kilmer of EGLE. Long-term public air monitoring data will likely reveal a measurable reduction in airborne pollutants like fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide and ozone as Michigan industrial activity slows amid declining demand and stay-at-home orders become more widespread across the nation. 

As of Wednesday morning, 17 states including Iowa and Pennsylvania were not under stay-home orders, which means that even if Michigan's air pollution footprint is shrinking, pollutants may still be wafting in from across state lines. (Across the Detroit River in Ontario, schools and non-essential businesses are closed.) 

Kilmer said we can look to the national economic crisis of 2008-09 for hints of what to expect. With more people out-of-work and gas prices high during the recession, people drove less and factories slowed production. Air pollution also took a noticeable dip across the country.

“But when the economy ramped back up, we also saw pollution increase,” she said.

Polluted air, increased COVID-19 risk

Onwenu, the Detroit environmental justice organizer, warned that casting the COVID-19 pandemic as an environmental win presents an overly simplistic “false choice” between economic progress and human and ecological health. 

Professor Trish Koman, a research investigator at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, said it also risks overlooking the role of race and income in predicting who suffers the most from polluted air.

“The way we have allocated land for highways, factories, utilities and other sources of air pollution often ends up falling on racial minorities,” Koman said. “That’s true in Michigan and across the U.S.”

There is a very real connection between air pollution and illnesses like the new coronavirus. Breathing air polluted with particulate matter from diesel exhaust, nitrogen oxides from oil refining and other airborne pollutants is associated with a host of diseases, from asthma and heart disease to cancer. Medical experts say people with these types of underlying health issues are more likely to die of COVID-19. 

This means many residents of Detroit, most notably southwest areas of the city, who breathe particularly polluted air, have disproportionately high rates of asthma, cancer, heart disease and other illnesses linked to air pollution. With Detroit now as the epicenter of Michigan’s exploding COVID-19 outbreak, these residents appear to be at far greater risk than the average Michigan resident.

During the SARS outbreak of the early 2000s, people living in areas with heavy air pollution were more likely to die from the disease. At the same time, research shows even a temporary respite can bring real health benefits. For example, during a labor strike that closed the area steel mill in Utah Valley, Utah in the winter of 1986, two-thirds fewer children went to the hospital for lung illnesses.

Although it’s unclear whether a brief period of cleaner air would reduce Michigan residents’ vulnerability to the coronavirus, “for the quality of life of people who live with these risks every day, any improvement in air quality matters,” Striz Calnin said.

Of course, without structural changes to transportation habits, power production methods and industrial activities, any environmental and public health gains caused by the COVID-19 shutdown will be temporary. Once stay-at-home orders are lifted, many workers will likely resume work commutes in single-passenger vehicles. Shuttered businesses will reopen and industrial production will ramp up.

If there is a permanent environmental benefit to be gained from the coronavirus, said Koman of U-M, it may be the realization of just how much our current norms sacrifice public health for economic progress.

“It gives us the moment,” she said, “to reimagine what a clean and equitable and healthy environment could look like.”


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