Residents living near an auto plant on Detroit’s east side say the facility is fouling the air and causing them harm, despite a community benefits agreement meant to protect them.
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A group of east siders are demanding environmental justice from Stellantis (FCA); the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE); and the City of Detroit. The residents claim the Stellantis Mack Assembly Plant is negatively impacting people’s health.
There is also a federal civil rights claim underway that asserts Detroit’s east side residents are being discriminated against and disproportionately bearing the “impact of industrial pollution for all of society.” The lawsuit is requesting money for home repair and relocation funding.
Jerry King, a Detroit resident and FCA (Fiat Chrysler Automobiles) Neighborhood Advisory Council (NAC) chairman, said one of the reasons the plant has been allowed to pollute is because the language in the community benefits agreement between Stellantis — FCA’s parent company — and the City of Detroit isn’t strong enough to protect people who live near the plant on Mack Avenue and St. Jean Street.
“It’s a totally broken process, and it doesn’t allow us on the Neighborhood Advisory Council to do our job,” King said.
Part of the problem, King said, is that Stellantis receives resident complaints, not the NAC, so it’s hard for King and other NAC members to speak on behalf of the residents.
“Without access to the information,” said King, “how can we ever articulate to anyone what the community’s complaints are?”
They also say the community benefits process is flawed and needs to be expanded and strengthened to protect Detroit neighborhoods from environmental injustice.
The current Stellantis community benefits agreement outlines the number of jobs that will be created, plans for demolishing decrepit structures and investments in the City’s Motor City Match program, among other initiatives. The 2019 environmental pledge includes 200 new trees, drought-resistant landscaping and a stormwater park. Stellantis also agreed to build a fence. In June, Stellantis announced an additional $1 million investment to support “Detroit’s Greenest Initiative.” The automakers also plan to plant 1,100 trees to help offset emissions.
King said the NAC didn’t push for more environmental protections because they didn’t fully understand what the environmental impact would be and they were scared to lose the number of jobs being offered at the plant.
The east side neighborhoods are majority Black with a median income of only about $21,000 a year. Nearly a third of the housing structures are vacant, according to a 2018 CBO report.
Since the summer of 2019, residents complain of odors, burning eyes and throats, loud noises, and even structural damage to their homes. They are concerned about the chemicals in car paint, among other hazards.
Robert Shobe, 59, lives on Beniteau Street, about 200 yards from the Mack plant. Shobe said he decided not to be involved in the community benefits negotiation process because the NAC has “no power to do anything” about the pollution.
The City’s Planning and Development Department (PDD) creates the NACs and selects the majority of its members. Four representatives are selected by PDD, City Council has three selections, and two members are appointed by the community. Critics have suggested that the City should have less say in appointing members to the NAC and that more residents from the impacted area should be on the board.
“When I first looked at the benefits agreement, I saw there was no way to actually hold (Stellantis) accountable for polluting the area,” Shobe said.
Shobe said he gets a burning sensation in his eyes and throat from being outside his home for too long.
“I’ve been a prisoner in my own home for at least the last five months because I can’t handle being outside with that scent of pollution,” Shobe said.
Shobe is in the group Justice for Beniteau and it has, with the help of organizations like the Detroit People’s Platform and Color of Change, gathered more than 5,600 signatures on a petition seeking environmental protections for the residents who live near the Mack plant.
Shobe has lived in his house for 23 years. He created the petition in 2020, but he first noticed “bad odors and other stuff with the air” in 2019. He said it wasn’t until June 2021 that he started noticing any health issues.
“I don’t know if maybe it just accumulated, or if maybe there are higher levels of pollutants coming out of there with them pushing out new cars, but it got bad for me this summer,” he said.
Other residents on Beniteau say they have noticed similar issues. Tanisha Burton, 45, has lived in her home for three years, and said she has noticed a “weird paint smell” and other fumes that she believes stem from the plant.
“I also have been getting these really bad headaches and migraines, and I only get them if I’m outside my house for a long time,” Burton said.
Burton, who has diabetes, said she is worried the pollution could impact her in the long term. Burton said she signed the petition hoping the company would alleviate the issues before residents’ health issues get worse.
King said the amount of air pollution being generated at the plant is a huge concern for him because the plant is in a majority Black neighborhood.
“Yes, the plant has created jobs, but what good is creating jobs if you’re poisoning the people who live in close proximity to said jobs?” he said.
Residents and activists also claim the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) hasn’t done enough to protect residents from the issues going on at the plant. The plant produces vehicles such as the new version of the Jeep Grand Cherokee SUV that was released in September.
Despite this claim, the Air Quality Division of EGLE issued two violation notices to Stellantis after regulators noticed “persistent and objectionable paint/solvent odors” during a visit to the plant in late August and again in early October. EGLE also issued an additional notice of “escalated enforcement action” against Stellantis on Nov. 18. EGLE’s latest violation notice claims Stellantis did not properly install pollution control equipment at the Mack assembly plant.
EGLE spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said the department has scheduled two meetings in December with Stellantis to discuss resolving the violation notices through a consent order.
“During this escalated enforcement process, EGLE will continue to be responsive to community concerns and complaints,” Greenberg said in an email to BridgeDetroit. “The enforcement process can take a long time, and will include a monetary penalty, a compliance plan (much of which already is in motion) and possibly a supplemental environmental project.”
Michael Brieda, the plant manager at the Stellantis plant, responded to the first violation notice in a statement, saying the company takes the concerns seriously and is working to remediate the issue.
“We also recognize the importance of hearing about these concerns from the community as they arise,” Brieda said in the statement. “Therefore, we will set up a dedicated line for local community members to report odor concerns directly to us.”
Stellantis conducted an internal review of the plant to find the source of the odors after hearing complaints from residents and getting violation notices from EGLE. Stellantis said it has taken steps to address those concerns, including having team members walk the property line several times daily to track and record conditions, and ensuring that plant entries are secured to prevent odors from leaving the building.
Al Johnston, with Stellantis’ corporate environmental programs unit, presented data at a NAC meeting, Dec. 15 that the company says “demonstrates that the air around the community is safe.”
Despite the efforts Stellantis is taking, some community members say their needs still aren’t being met.
Victoria Thomas, 60, who lives on Beniteau, has noticed “watering and burning eyes” and weird sensations in her throat. Thomas has lived in her house for 20 years, but said she would be willing to relocate if Stellantis paid for it.
“I love my home, and I love living here, but not enough to get sick or die from it,” Thomas said.
Thomas said her home has also suffered structural damage due to activity at the plant.
“Whatever they’re doing over there knocked my (house’s) foundation off place, and now I have to pay for that,” she said.
Home repair was mentioned by residents during the community benefits meetings, according to Eden Kasmala-Bloom with the Detroit People’s Platform. Kasmala-Bloom said the agreement did include a lump sum of $15,000 per home for contractors, but that didn’t fully address the issues.
“Yes, these people got money for contractors who basically fixed their porches, but what residents needed was a house-by-house assessment that could help each person meet their individual needs,” Kasmala-Bloom said.
BridgeDetroit contacted the City of Detroit’s Department of Civil Rights, Inclusion and Opportunity (CRIO), which is to enforce the community benefits ordinance.
CRIO has been “monitoring the CBO, and the project is on track with every commitment,”
said City spokesman John Roach. “They have enforced (the CBA) and monitor progress regularly.”
The Stellantis Community Benefits Agreement (CBA) was developed as part of Fiat Chrysler’s $2.5 billion expansion plan for the old Jefferson North Assembly plant in 2019. Detroit voters approved the community benefits ordinance in 2016 as a way to protect residents’ interests in large-scale economic development plans.