In Detroit, foul odors at Stellantis plant stoke fears of neighborhood ruin
Go more in-depth on this story at BridgeDetroit.
DETROIT — Bethany Howard’s neighborhood was dismantled to satisfy demand for automobiles.
She grew up in Detroit, the Motor City, in the 1980s. For five generations, the Howards have lived, worked and attended school in East Canfield, a tight-knit, walkable community. She still lives in the same house her great-grandfather moved into when he left Mississippi. But the neighborhood she knew growing up no longer exists.
Howard remembers the day when the bulldozers moved in. In the early 1990s, when she was in fifth grade, churches and businesses and hundreds of homes were demolished, including that of her best friend.
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A nearby Chrysler automotive plant sought to expand, and the city took over homes using eminent domain to help make way. The plant churned out SUVs and trucks, and land where homes once stood soon turned into parking lots and empty lawns.
A generation later, Black residents are anxious that it is happening all over again.
The plant — which later became Fiat Chrysler and is known today as Stellantis — announced plans to expand in 2019 and produce Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Durangos. And although Detroit’s mayor promised the expansion would not cause any further displacement, this possibility is now being discussed because of a pungent and noxious odor emitted by the factory.
Some have likened it to paint. Others have said it resembled gas, and they could taste it in their mouth and in the back of their throat. It has blanketed block after block of homes in East Canfield; most days it’s undetectable, but others it’s so strong that people have had to keep windows and doors shut tight. The stench is thought to be a sign of airborne toxic chemicals.
The controversy has reignited a conversation in Detroit about the legacy of the auto industry, particularly for Black residents. In the popular imagination, carmakers provided solid factory jobs with generous benefits — in 1914, Ford Motor Company memorably announced it would pay $5 a day, double the going rate for factory workers at the time, and reduced the workday from nine hours to eight.
But there has been a toll that often goes unremarked on. Dozens of auto factories were mostly built in areas that people of color called home. It means that those residents have dealt with decades of pollution — and some now face displacement, again.
“Are they gonna just try to buy us all out? What am I supposed to do then?” said Howard.
A community dwindles
In the late 1980s, Chrysler announced plans for a $1billion assembly facility in Detroit, next door to its first-ever plant. The project was expected to keep thousands of jobs, but it came at a cost: more than 20 residential blocks just west of the site would need to be demolished to make room for the facility.
Kathryn Douglas, whose family has worked for the automotive industry, has lived in East Canfield since the 1950s. Douglas said she first hoped that Chrysler would improve the neighborhood thanks to the addition of thousands of jobs. “It did not,” she said.
“Initially, we expected them to really help the community to grow,” said Douglas. She hoped there might be green spaces and walking paths.
Indeed, the city claimed at the time that most residents were happy with the buyouts.
Native Detroiter Darnell Gardner, who lives in his childhood home across the street from the Stellantis plant, said his brother was one of those residents who didn’t object.
“They paid him a sum of money, and he bought another house that was in a much nicer neighborhood,” Gardner said.
But at least a few hundred residents and businesses were dissatisfied with the compensation they were offered.
Construction displaced thousands of residents, and 150 businesses were razed. Meanwhile, Chrysler was granted hundreds of millions of dollars in tax incentives from the city and state, and the city paid from its own coffers for residents to move.
It echoed other chapters in history. In 1981, more than 4,000 residents were displaced from a similarly thriving neighborhood in Poletown to make way for a General Motors factory.
Most of Detroit’s automotive facilities were in historically redlined neighborhoods – communities of color deemed too risky by lenders to give homebuyers mortgages or loans. These already underinvested areas were subject to more air pollution, from 49 current and former automotive factories, according to a BridgeDetroit analysis.
Today, there are only three active automotive factories left in Detroit — and all of them are in formerly redlined neighborhoods, including the Stellantis plants in East Canfield.
Douglas, now nearing 70, says the Stellantis factory is partly responsible for a gradual decline in the neighborhood.
“I have good thoughts about them, but most of them are kind of sad,” she said.
Douglas said she’d watched the neighborhood turn from “once very thriving” to “now pretty much a desert”. She said she’d watched the community lose schools, pharmacies and laundromats, leaving just one doctor’s office and a few churches. Instead, Stellantis “brings in lots of traffic, debris and general health concerns”.
She said: “They’re used to be 98 houses on this block, there are now probably 40. There’s no real thriving in the community, it just exists.”
‘Not a lot of options’
In 2019, Stellantis announced plans to build a new auto assembly line, Detroit’s first in three decades. It promised to bring 5,000 new jobs, and agreed to hire Detroiters first in an agreement with the city, although the amount of jobs it created has been disputed after reports that some “new” hires were actually transfers from other factories. The city and state gave Stellantis nearly $400 million in tax incentives.
Even as Detroit’s mayor, Mike Duggan, promised that residents would not be pushed out, community members asked the state to deny the expansion permit. Among their concerns was that the neighborhood already faced high levels of pollution and elevated rates of asthma. Black Detroiters are three times as likely to be hospitalized for asthma than white people, and the neighborhood surrounding the Stellantis plant is one of the top ZIP Codes in the city for asthma hospitalizations.
But the state approved the plant, requiring additional air monitoring and community benefits to address the public health concerns. It also accepted Stellantis’s proposal to cut emissions at another one of its plants in Warren – a more affluent and white neighborhood – in order to increase emissions in East Canfield.
Stellantis’s new facility “should have never been permitted to expand into the backyard of residents based on emissions alone”, said Andrew Bashi, an attorney representing east side residents in a civil rights complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency. The complaint claims that the state discriminated against Black residents in approving the permit.
“Thousands have been systematically displaced by expansion after expansion. Their limited green spaces have been leveled and given away to Stellantis only to be turned into parking lots,” said Bashi. “Really, this is just the latest brick in a menacing wall built through decades of racism and the targeted pillaging of Black communities.”
The smell began after construction was completed.
“It’s a tightness in my chest. The fumes I can literally taste in my throat,” said Kimberly Starks, an employee at Southeastern high school, a Detroit public school next to the plant. “There is always a pungent odor of gas.”
“We’ve had days where it’s like very clearly a paint smell out there. We’ve also had days where there’s a really strong gas smell,” said Ricky Ackerman, an employee at the Eastside Community Network, a nearby non-profit.
At least 188 residential parcels are affected by odors from the new Stellantis plant, according to the Michigan department of health and human services. These odors could indicate the presence of harmful chemicals in the air, such as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, which have been linked to worsened asthma and eye, nose and throat irritation. Emerging research is also looking into whether VOCs cause adverse birth outcomes.
Since the new plant was built, it has added more than 50,000 additional pounds of toxic VOCs to the neighborhood’s air.
Over the years, Stellantis officials have said – and they continue to maintain – that the emissions do not pose an increased health risk to nearby residents. But the facility has been ticketed with eight air quality violations since 2021, receiving one of them just last month.
The company has submitted a permit to increase emissions again, which state regulators say they may approve, although they also say they are mindful of the community’s concerns.
A Stellantis spokesperson, Jodi Tinson, said that the odors will be resolved when the company installs a new device that captures the emissions. “We are confident that its operation will address remaining odor issues,” she said in a statement. The company has provided state regulators with ambient air monitoring data from a station near the facility which shows the air is consistent with national standards, Tinson said.
But city leaders are now advocating for buyouts, arguing that residents shouldn’t have to live so close to an industrial facility, and citing uncertainty about whether the company’s plans will really resolve the odors.
“There’s a community that is sandwiched between two Stellantis plants, and for them to be subjected to all of the emissions that are coming from those two plants – it’s a bit excessive, and I think that needs to be addressed,” said Latisha Johnson, a Detroit city council member who represents East Canfield residents. She said she “can’t say with 100 percent certainty” that the new emissions-capture device will address the odors that are coming from the facility.
Duggan, who originally promised there would be no displacement, remains bullish on the plant expansion.
“The mayor’s office continues to advocate to the state on behalf of residents for a solution to the odor issue. This is entirely a state regulatory matter,” said John Roach, the spokesperson for Duggan’s office. “We do understand that Stellantis will be installing additional equipment at the plant in June it expects will solve the odor problem.
“While there always will be critics, we believe that this was a great deal for the city,” he said.
Robert Shobe, whose backyard practically touches the wall around the Stellantis plant, is among the locals who say they would welcome a buyout. In remission from cancer and suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Shobe said his health has been affected by the plant. Since it expanded, Shobe has taken up the fight against the pollution in his backyard, rallying his neighbors, attending meetings with elected officials, conducting his own air monitoring and involving himself in other efforts to get the issue addressed.
But it has exhausted him, and he no longer has the energy for it.
“I’ve been through so much with this. It is taxing and it’s stressful,” he said. “I don’t have a lot of options right now.”
This project was produced as a project for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism’s 2022 data fellowship
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