Op-Ed: I’m Optimistic About the Government’s Agenda for the First Time in Decades

Photo via Raquel Garcia

By Raquel Garcia

June 28, 2023

“With infrastructure investments and the Inflation Reduction Act, the country is finally taking the necessary steps toward reducing air pollution,” Detroit resident Raquel Garcia in an op-ed.

This week, the Biden administration is kicking off its ‘Investing in America’ tour highlighting recent investments across the country. As an environmental justice advocate in Southwest Detroit, I am used to being forgotten by policymakers at the top. Investments never trickle down and elected officials rarely enter our communities. But for the first time in a long time, an administration is finally investing in historically disadvantaged communities. 

Southwest Detroit has a kind of magic to it. We are an incredibly giving community where neighbors help one another. We are deeply proud of our community and the diverse cultures that comprise it. It’s part of what made me fall in love with my home when my son and I moved here into a small home in 2016. But this amazing community also sits in the middle of a toxic soup of industry. 

We are bordered by two highways, a gigantic freight terminal, a port terminal, and a lot of industry along the Detroit River. The 10,000 heavy-duty trucks that pass through the community daily subject residents to harmful air pollution and contribute to our status as one of the most polluted zip codes in the country

It’s no mistake that predominantly minority-inhabited neighborhoods are zoned in or around commercial and industrial areas. This is part of our nation’s historical design to place the impacts of industry on disadvantaged communities, especially those that were denied the political power to fight against it.

Decades later, we now know that the poor air quality in environmental justice (EJ) neighborhoods like mine isn’t just a health problem, but also an economic one. Each year, in Detroit alone, over a million lost work days and school absences are attributed to pollution-related illnesses. The economic impact from this totals $6.9 billion annually.

It is nearly impossible to be surrounded by heavy industry and not be impacted by it. Not only does the loud crashing of shipping containers onto truck beds wake me at all hours of the night, but I see the thick, black film of pollution every time I wash my windows. Our neighborhoods have high rates of cancer and asthma, among other health conditions. My own son tested high for lead levels in his blood when he was a toddler. 

I often wonder: 10 years from now, will I regret living in this community because it’s on a truck route? But I know this community and its people are worth fighting for. So I took my skills from organizing around immigration and began advocating with Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. We fight for the reduction of emissions and traffic from the local trucking industry.

As part of the environmental justice advocacy community, I had become accustomed to elected officials nodding their heads in understanding but failing to enact real policy change. It’s always been my understanding that EJ advocates have to do the metaphorical arm-twisting to get the government to do the right thing and listen to the communities that have been historically left out. 

So it was a little surreal to me to see the Biden administration and Michael Regan, the administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), actually start making the changes that EJ advocates have called for decades. With infrastructure investments and the Inflation Reduction Act, the country is finally taking the necessary steps toward reducing air pollution. 

Specifically, the Inflation Reduction Act created the Clean Heavy Duty Vehicle and Clean Ports programs to replace vehicles and port infrastructure spewing air pollution into communities like mine. This is in addition to other programs incentivizing the adoption of electric vehicles and increasing charging stations that will also reduce air pollution.

My organization met with Administrator Reagan and his advisors about air pollution in our community. For the last 10 years, I’ve approached these meetings with suspicion as I’ve become aware of issues. But now I feel different, with the administration hiring so many people of color from impacted neighborhoods. They’ve placed an emphasis on addressing disadvantaged communities with their Justice40 Initiative and created a new Environmental Justice office within the EPA. 

I hesitate to say, but I really do feel a lot of confidence in what the EPA is saying and doing.

While it’s too soon to measure the exact impacts recent investments will have, I feel really hopeful. I don’t know if it’s enough to address the historic cumulative effects of environmental injustice, but at least we are taking baby steps toward progress.

Even with our obstacles, Southwest Detroit is a resilient, hard-working community that I am proud to call home. With the work of the Biden administration to actually listen to EJ communities, I’m cautiously optimistic for our future. 

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