When storms and extreme cold hit Texas in February, the results were disastrous. Most of the state’s stand-alone energy grid stopped working, creating blackout conditions. People went without power and clean water for days or longer, and the images showed the human side of this infrastructure failure. The images and news stories also showed that the impacts were far from shared equally. The storms made energy equity issues real in the eyes of viewers as they saw how communities were affected differently.
What do severe winter storms and power outages have to do with environmental justice? Why is DWEJ talking about power outages in Texas? Good questions. As we have learned, environmental justice doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Injustices don’t just happen. They arise as a result of many interrelated factors creating negative consequences. They also tend to impact certain segments of our population more than others, notable communities of color and low-income individuals and areas. While the power outages in Texas were the result of extreme winter weather and a myriad of other contributing factors, they do share something in common with our work here.
As you may have noticed in recent newsletters and in our social media posts, DWEJ is actively working on energy-related issues. Our “Solar Stories of Detroit” video series, our work with community groups and houses of worship to increase solar capacity, and our Energy Efficiency Assistance Program team all share the same goals: to decrease the energy burden of Detroiters, to decrease the carbon and greenhouse gas footprint of the city, and to reduce health impacts caused by energy-production related air pollution. What happened in Texas a few weeks ago gives us the opportunity to talk about energy issues and their real world impacts, especially on communities that are marginalized, already at risk and subject to a host of other social, economic and environmental inequalities.
What do we mean by “energy burden”? It is the percentage of household income that goes toward energy costs, specifically household utilities. This burden affects low-income people the most, due to factors like housing age, appliance age, and how weatherized (insulated) their homes are. In Detroit, low-income and people of color have a far higher energy burden than their counterparts in other parts of the state. Not only do homes in the city tend to be older and less energy efficient, residents also pay more for their electricity. In January 2021, price data showed Detroiters paid 28.7% more than the national average per kW of electricity.
Energy burdens and inequities are, of course, not unique to Detroit. The storms and freezing temperatures in Texas showed many of the same problems exist for minority and low-income neighborhoods across the state. These communities are also likely to face more obstacles getting help or being able to recover financially from losses due to the outages. Plus, these are the same communities hit hardest by COVID-19. One quote summarized the scene vividly: “The illuminated Texas skylines of downtown buildings and newly filled luxury hotels cast against the darkened silhouettes of freezing neighborhoods…”.
Something Stinks! The Power Grid Failure Causes an “Invisible” Environmental Injustice
If the hardships created by the sustained power outages weren’t enough, there was an additional, less publicized event that took place in the aftermath. Communities located near petrochemical refineries faced the additional threat from 3.5 million pounds of excess pollutants being released into the air, an amount far greater than normal, allowable levels. The “pollution dump” was the result of refineries burning excess natural gas supplies to avoid damage to their equipment, The released pollutants include benzene, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, hydrogen sulfide, and sulfur dioxide. Not only did it create a noticeable stench, the chemicals released are known to cause coughing and throat irritation, asthma attacks and increased risks of and effects from heart disease. Just as in Detroit, residents living near such facilities face poor air quality, increased risk of several chronic health conditions, increased medical costs, and increased number of days of work lost due to illness. Also like in Detroit, and in cities across the US, events like this disproportionately fall upon Black, Latino and low-income households. These communities are often the first affected and the last to receive help.
February 2021 saw the US pass a grim milestone – over 500,000 COVID-19 related deaths. Michigan deaths topped 15,000, with Detroit accounting for 25% of that total. In the early weeks and months of the COVID-19 pandemic, an alarming data trend was revealed. Case, hospitalization, and death rates were notably higher in Native American, African American and Latino populations than other groups. Here in Michigan, Detroit was hit the hardest. Other urban areas in the state also had higher rates than suburban and rural areas. Since then, the “infection map” has changed to appear more equal but looks can be deceiving. The same communities most harshly impacted early in the pandemic are still faring 2-3 times worse than their counterparts.
A great deal of COVID-19 data has been analyzed in the past year, but a finding released in February was very somber. Due largely to the pandemic, average life expectancy across all groups in America dropped a full year, from 78.8 years to 77.8, the largest decrease since WWII. Men fared worse than women, and non-Hispanic Black males had the largest decrease at 3 years. Hispanic males saw the next greatest decrease at 2.4 years, followed by Black women at 2.3 years. During that same time, White males and women both saw decreases of less than 1 year (0.8 and 0.7 respectively).
You may wonder why an environmental justice group is discussing this issue. The answer is simple – the factors that increase COVID-19 risks are the same factors that underlie many environmental injustices. Social determinants of risk, or the conditions in which people live, work, learn and worship, affect a wide variety of risks and outcomes. Inequities in these determinants, such as poverty and healthcare access, are interrelated to numerous other issues. When these inequities are addressed and equity is increased, poor outcomes can be reduced and society as a whole benefits. If that sounds familiar to our supporters, that’s because these goals are at the heart of our work and mission. These COVID-19 data numbers are very real representations of inequality in action and each “number’ is a real person. We can never forget that.
You can learn more about the life expectancy findings here, and the impacts of COVID-19 on communities of color here and here.
In the 12/9 issue of the Detroit News, DWEJ was interviewed about the work we have done in Delray in advance of the new Gordie Howe International Bridge from Detroit to Windsor. The 167 acre US terminal/Point of Entry will be constructed in Delray and will radically change the neighborhood, which has endured many struggles and challenges. The City of Detroit created the Delray Neighborhood Framework plan in response to to the construction of the bridge and its’ facilities. DWEJ was added to the project team to make sure environmental justice was incorporated into the plan and worked on the project from 2019-2020.
The Detroit News interviewed several people and groups associated with the project. Here’s an excerpt featuring our Communications and Data Manager, Brad Ashburn:
Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice is one of several organizations that has worked with the city’s consulting team and Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition on neighborhood engagement. Delray has long been subjected to air pollution from nearby industries and exhaust from trucking on Interstate 75, said Brad Ashburn, Communications Manager for Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice.
“Our mission was to make sure that the people had a voice at the table. They’ve had a lot of issues,” Ashburn said. “What they are going to face going forward is the same, plus more truck traffic.”
Detroit News subscribers can access the article here
Learn about the Delray Neighborhood Framework Plan and our role here, part of our Programs and Projects page
Find information on the Gordie Howe International Bridge here
The fight to correct environmental injustices has continued around the US even with COVID-19 bringing many daily activities to a screeching halt. This fight represents the continuation of years of dedication by the community to demand equality and to persevere in the face of daunting odds.
Here in Michigan, we are finally seeing real progress made around the response to the Flint Water Crisis. After initial investigations were conducted, several indictments of lower level staff were announced in 2016-2017. Most of these defendants ended up taking plea-bargains, significantly limiting the prosecution of higher ranked officials. In 2018, new Attorney General Dana Nessel, citing mistakes with the previously initiated criminal investigation, dropped all charges against the remaining eight defendants “without prejudice”, allowing them to possibly be charged at a later date.
On April 25, 2020, the 6-year statute of limitations to file new criminal charges against former Governor Rick Snyder and numerous other officials, expired. However, Solicitor General Fadwa Hammoud and Wayne County Prosecutor, Kym Worthy, who leads the Flint Water Prosecution Team within the Michigan Attorney General’s Office, had previously issued a statement on April 17 that the prosecutions “remain on track”. They stressed that they wanted to “correct the misconception that April 25, 2020 is the deadline to bring charges against those who may be criminally liable.”
While this was happening, a class-action lawsuit, filed in January 2016 by Flint residents and property owners, was still in progress. The suit claims that Governor Snyder, Emergency Managers, and State government agencies, violated Flint residents “bodily integrity” by exposing them to lead-contaminated water and hiding what they knew about it. It also claims that homeowners suffered financial losses due to diminished property values for which they weren’t compensated. On July 29, 2020, the Michigan Supreme Court denied a motion filed by lawyers for the defendants to dismiss the case. The decision allowed the case to proceed in the Michigan Court of Claims.
On August 20, 2020, the Court announced that Flint residents would be eligible for payments from a victim compensation fund of $600 million, as part of their preliminary settlement. While the final settlement details were yet to be determined, it was announced that 80% of payments would go to those who were under 18 in April of 2014, when the crisis began. Action to fund the settlement will require action by the Michigan legislature. The settlement also allows a separate case to proceed against the US EPA and private companies involved in the switch of water sources.
Credit: Jim West Photography
The history of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice has always been deeply intertwined with the battle against racism. At its core, DWEJ is actively committed to and involved in the fight for equality, and more specifically, in elevating the health, social, environmental and economic inequities that communities of color continue to experience to this day. We strive to provide Detroit residents with the tools they need to enact change in their own neighborhoods. We are guided by the Principles of Environmental Justice and will remain relentless in our pursuit to keep the voices of the communities we serve at the forefront of all our efforts. Read more about the connection between the BLM movement and its relationship to Environmental Justice.
Photo by Marc Klockow. Find him at klocko.co and @marcKlock.
COVID-19’s slowdowns and our change in leadership offer DWEJ’s board and staff a strong opportunity to reassess our future and chart a new and ambitious course for the organization. As part of this course of action, DWEJ has recruited consultant Jumana Vasi to work with us across the summer, in an effort to help us re-envision our goals for the coming decade.
Jumana is the principal at JVasi Consulting, LLC (@jumanavasi), where she advises nonprofit clients on creating environmental advocacy strategies, building organizational capacity, and implementing equity, diversity, and inclusion initiatives. She is currently advising other environmental justice networks and partners, working with them to increase resources for their grassroots efforts and in turn, helping them solve environmental problems in ways that also reduce racial and economic injustices.
We would like to thank you all for your ongoing support during these trying times and for all you do to build a healthy environment that values all people. We expect to emerge from this period stronger and more focused on today’s challenges and tomorrow’s potential for a more environmentally just society.