Alia Allen sits on her porch in Detroit's 48216 zip code, Michigan's most polluted region.
Photo by Ellen Chamberlain
Alia Allen sits on her porch in Detroit's 48216 zip code, Michigan's most polluted region. Photo by Ellen Chamberlain

Watch how rolling back air quality protections has left some Michiganders even more vulnerable during the coronavirus pandemic.

DETROIT, MI — Alia Allen woke in her Southwest Detroit home to the warm familiarity of a June morning: her pets, her garden, and a lingering stench.

“It’s just awful,” she told The ‘Gander about the all-too-common smell of sulfur dioxide that fills the air with the stench of rotten eggs. “But it’s a normal occurrence around here.”

Residents of Detroit’s most polluted section of town have complained about the toxic environment for generations. Wedged between the city’s incinerator and the Marathon oil refinery, the 48217 and 48216 zip codes are subject to air quality that has been linked to increased cases of asthma, cancer, and a litany of other health issues.

These issues will only worsen for Michiganders following President Trump’s series of environmental rollbacks, rather than protections, in the state’s most vulnerable communities. It hits even harder during a pandemic. 

“It’s been quite an insult to the American people that [the] Trump Administration has been ruthlessly rolling back pollution standards during this pandemic,” said Mary Anne Hitt, director of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “To have these public health and air pollution rollbacks continue even in the midst of this pandemic feels pretty cruel to me.”

Data shows that the coronavirus can worsen existing respiratory issues like asthma and other medical conditions occurring in residents of polluted areas. Analysis of worldwide coronavirus deaths across 66 regions showed that nearly 80% of them occurred in the most polluted regions, according to a report from The Guardian

The Sierra Club is a national grassroots environmental organization that works to combat pollution. The group, which has more than 3.8 million members, ramped up its work in the absence of strong federal leadership to fight the effects of environmental pollution and climate change. The Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign was created to lobby for clean energy alternatives to the old ways of fueling the planet that simultaneously kill it (and us).

Their work has become even more crucial in the current administration. 

Since taking office in 2016, President Trump has rolled back or repealed pollution standards for air, energy, and water. Science shows that protecting the environment directly ties to having healthier populations throughout the planet. 

Despite people’s efforts to help the environment, the Trump White House continues to slash needed environmental protections.


The Right to Breathe Clean Air

People who live with chronic air pollution that compromises their health are ultimately more vulnerable to other attacks on their immune systems like the coronavirus, according to Hitt. Allen says the effects can be seen in her own neighborhood that borders the 48217 area.

These neighborhoods of factory towns, such as River Rogue, Detroit, and south Dearborn are home to communities of color, including Black and Arab families, most with lower average incomes than the rest of Michigan. For example, the average household income for Michiganders is $55,000, according to the most recent census data. In River Rouge, the household income is just $27,000. 

“It’s an environmental injustice hotspot,” said Mike Berkowitz, the Michigan representative for the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal Campaign. “There’s a cacophony of industrial pollution sources that have extremely high asthma and cancer rates.”

Reports show the asthma burden in this area of Detroit is greater than the rates of Michiganders overall. This disproportionately impacts the communities of color, and kids particularly, experts say. 

“So many of these kids have asthma,” Hitt said. “And it’s just a known fact. But no one actually does anything about it.”

One of the biggest blows to communities like this was the Trump administration’s disbanding of the EPA’s air pollution review panel. The 20-member Particulate Matter Review Panel was made up of scientists who are experts in the health dangers of soot. 

The scientific review panel advised the agency about safe levels of pollution in the air, according to the New York Times. A smaller, seven-person panel replaced the predecessor. However, it has failed to implement new or reinstate old regulations.

Hitt says the group’s work is not helping U.S. citizens as much as it’s helping U.S. manufacturing and industry by limiting restrictions for factories like Marathon rather than establishing more protections for families that live nearby. 

“The repeal of the mercury and air toxic standard had already gone into effect and all U.S. power plants had complied,” she said of yet another Trump-era environmental rollback. 

Prior to the president’s change, the standard cut mercury air pollutants by 90% — a standard that is no longer required, negatively affecting communities that are most vulnerable to compromised health.

“The rollback of regulation on a lot of these polluters, whether it was the deregulation as part of the pandemic shifts or the hundreds environmental rules that the Trump Administration and his EPA are only making things worse,” said Berkowitz.

A President Who Doesn’t Heed Climate Change 

The Michigan Environmental Council identifies climate change as one of its priorities for environmental reform. Air pollution exacerbates climate change through releasing pollutants into the air by raising the earth’s temperature and filling the air with smog and soot.

The Trump Administration’s Affordable Clean Energy rule does not protect citizens against the rising costs associated with climate change. Instead, it assures greater affordability for large corporations and employers so they will not be faced with big price tags to combat climate change.

The EDF says that the “EPA projects that ACE will reduce power sector emissions by a mere 0.7 percent by 2030, and will increase pollution at nearly one in five of the nation’s coal plants, two-thirds of which are located in minority and low-income communities.”

Hitt said he believes Trump has done “everything not to address the pollution that people are suffering from.”

RELATED: Global Carbon Emissions Fell 17% Amid Coronavirus Peak

The Local Fight to Protect Michiganders

Sierra Club leaders say they will challenge the Trump Administration and its handling of environmental regulations in court.

“We believe many if not all of these rollbacks are illegal,” Hitt said.

Berkowitz encourages Michiganders to get involved locally to affect real change.

“More now than ever, leadership falls upon local government,” he said. “The people who govern your neighborhoods and communities are the people with the power to push back against the policies.” 

Gov. Whitmer’s proposed 2021 budget includes $11 million to be earmarked to address climate change effects on Michiganders and their businesses.

Concerned citizens can also contact the Michigan Public Service Commission to file complaints against industrial polluters in the state.

“We can’t count on the federal government’s help during the Trump Administration. Now more than ever we have to look to our local leaders to protect us from pollution and injustice.”

Trump’s 2018 budget called for massive cuts in scientific research and environmental programs that protect air and water. The proposed budget, titled “A New Foundation for American Greatness,” slashed the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget by 31%. At the time, it was the biggest budget cut proposed for any agency. 

Without full funding, the EPA began operating more like a club to protect the interests of big industry rather than the planet and its inhabitants. This can be seen in factory towns like River Rouge and Detroit, where rollbacks mean pollution is a standard of living for families. 

“It’s a slap in the face to people facing injustices among these impacted communities,” Berkowitz said.