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New Detroit-Windsor bridge crossing raises traffic exhaust concerns

Patricia Gonzalez can’t imagine living in Southwest Detroit’s Delray Neighborhood after a second international bridge to Canada opens and truck traffic doubles.

“My biggest concern about the second bridge is increased truck traffic. This area is already too polluted,” said Gonzalez, a longtime Delray resident.

Delray was chosen as the U.S. site for the bridge, known as the Gordie Howe International Bridge (GHIB). The impoverished neighborhood is located near the Ambassador Bridge, North America’s busiest international border crossing. Approximately 10,000 trucks cross over the Ambassador Bridge every day.

The GHIB is set to open in 2020 and, like the Ambassador, will connect Detroit and Windsor. The new span is expected to increase truck traffic by 125 percent, according to Simone Sagovac, program director of the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, which works to ensure Delray and other communities receive protections and benefits from the new bridge.

Jeff Cranson, a spokesman for the Michigan Department of Transportation (MDOT), said the most recent published estimate compiled as part of the DRIC study is that truck traffic will grow at the rate of 2.5 percent per year, which will result in a 109 percent increase in 30 years from today's traffic.

The GHIB was first proposed in 2004. Since then, supporters of the project have argued that a second border crossing is needed to prepare for an anticipated expansion in economic activity between the U.S. and Canada.

“I don’t think that having one or two bridges is going to change the fact that if the economy improves, we are going to have more trucks,” Sagovac said. “And if we have more trucks and only one bridge, there is going to be more congestion.”

Working to reduce trucking emissions

The increase in truck traffic has prompted environmental activists to consider measures that reduce diesel emissions. Sagovac wants Michigan to implement a model similar to California’s Clean Truck Program, which has reduced port truck emissions.

“Under conditions of the program, all trucks coming in the property must have the most current year truck engine,” she said. “The newer truck engines pollute significantly less. They pollute about 80 percent less diesel emissions than the previous standard.”

She also wants to work with local companies to try to get them to install new engines and filters in trucks.

“There are filters and engines that are manufactured at companies in the Detroit area and Dearborn, so there is a larger economic benefit,” she said.

It would be costly for companies to upgrade trucks.

“It is a cost...but it is a much smaller cost than the collective cost with the health concerns,” Sagovac said. The creation of green spaces is also being considered as a strategy to address the heavy truck traffic.

Diesel exhaust raises concern

According to the Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, diesel emissions from mobile sources is the top issue of concern for southwest Detroit and South Dearborn communities. Diesel exhaust is linked to respiratory problems and cancer. It is a complex mixture of gases and fine particles commonly known as soot that contains several toxic air contaminants. The pollutant can irritate the eyes, nose, throat and lungs.

In Delray, semi-trucks can be spotted traveling through the neighborhoods all day. Delray is situated near the highway, which also contributes to the heavy truck traffic. Diesel exhaust from truck traffic is only one source of pollution. Southwest Detroit is surrounded by refineries and heavy industries, making it home to some of Michigan’s most polluted ZIP codes.

Delray’s 48209 ZIP code is one of Michigan’s most polluted. A coal fired plant and the Detroit Water and Sewerage Plant is close to the homes of Delray residents who can also see Zug Island from only a short distance.

Sagovac said diesel exhaust can be just as much a threat to human health as pollution from industrial sources.

"The smokestacks are disbursing the pollution high above, away from the community,” she said. “But the truck traffic, the emissions are emitted at the human level and the diesel particulate that comes out. There is a whole array of different toxins that come out of diesel emissions and it stays down on the ground level with people."

Fate of residents who won’t receive buyouts questioned

Residents living within the footprint of the project will be offered buyouts. State Rep. Stephanie Chang (D- Detroit), has been working with the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition and a community advisory group to ensure Delray is still a livable area after the bridge opens.

“We want Delray to be a hopeful, vibrant area for the residents who will still be living here after the second bridge opens,” she said.

Chang is also working to make sure residents who were offered buyouts know what their rights are and have a safe, decent and sanitary place to live.

She said all the residents within the footprint of the project have already received letters informing them about the buyouts. According to the 2010 census, Delray had a population of 2,783 people.

Cranson said 142 residential properties have been identified for acquisition. All buildings on acquired properties will be demolished. The project footprint was identified in the Record of Decision in 2009.

Maria Avila, a lifelong resident of southwest Detroit, believes all residents in Delray should be given the option of moving out.

“They should have a choice,” she said. “Either move them out or give them every accommodation they ask for; and that includes installing air filtration systems in homes.”

The Coalition will be advocating on behalf of residents through the community benefits agreement process.
Cranson added that mitigating impacts to the community is an important aspect of the project and that Michigan continues to work directly with the community and its Canadian partners on the GHIB project to identify appropriate mitigation measures.

Environmental impact of bridge concerns residents

A second border crossing is concerning to Gonzalez’s 15-year-old son Haracio Vargis, who has asthma. “The pollution gets into my lungs,” he said. “I just try and avoid it as much as I can.”

In southwest Detroit, one in five children have asthma, according to the Michigan Environmental Council.

Gonzalez is still grieving the loss of her eldest daughter, who died of cancer in 2012.

“If you ask a lot of the families from the Delray, you will see that many have cancer,” Gonzalez said. “If I knew the future, and I would have known that my daughter would live until 80 years old in Mexico? I would have never come here.”

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.

Cranson said the air quality analysis completed for the GHIB, concluded that the project is predicted below the standards stated in the Clean Air Act as amended in 1990 (CAAA).

The study included project-level analysis for carbon monoxide (CO), fine and coarse particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and mobile source air toxics (MSAT). Moreover, the DRIC Air Quality Impact Technical Report (January, 2008) concluded that the construction and operations of the bridge and plaza would not violate the CAAA.

Dr. Brad Van Guilder, organizing representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal to Clean Energy Campaign, said local air quality monitors don’t test for diesel exhaust making it difficult to identify how much the pollutant impacts air quality.

“I am able to speak,” Gonzalez said. “Many families cannot speak, so I am doing it for them and my daughter. She showed me that every moment you live is a moment that is given as a gift.”

MDOT has worked aggressively to support community efforts to obtain and implement grants to limit diesel emission in Southwest Detroit.

Southwest Detroit’s 48217 ZIP code is Michigan’s most polluted, according to University of Michigan environmental scientists who have studied air pollution data that also shows neighboring ZIP codes account for five of the other top 10 areas.

“It is such a huge amount of pollution that all the houses and buildings are starting to be covered with a thick layer of black dust, which is very difficult to remove,” said Elias Gutierrez, publisher of the Latino Press.

Gonzalez is a mother of four. Her family’s fate in Delray is still uncertain.

“What are we going to do?” Gonzalez asked. “Should I stay here? My family is here. There is a community here. I don’t know where to ask these questions or who is going to help us.”

Video report courtesy of Detroit Public Television.

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