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Fiat Chrysler bringing jobs to Detroit

Flickr User Enzo Ceroni

A new Fiat Chrysler assembly plant will be built on Detroit’s east side, near an existing car factory. The company promises to bring nearly five-thousand jobs to the city. But environmentalists worry about pollution and its effect on residents, many of whom struggle with asthma. Laura Herberg reports.

Laura Herberg’s reporting was produced in partnership with the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Detroit Equity Action Lab… a program of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights. The initiative is funded by the Knight Foundation… Ford Foundation and Community Foundations for Southeast Michigan.

When Amoni Pitts hears trucks working one street over she worries about being able to breathe.

"I have asthma real bad so it’s like I have trouble breathing and so I feel like all this construction and dust and everything it’s not good for me."

Behind her house on Beniteau Street, trucks are flattening a hill to make way for a parking lot for the upcoming Fiat Chrysler plant. The factory will likely be finished by 2020.

Like Pitts, many people in the area suffer from asthma. Rates for adults in Detroit are 29 percent higher than in the rest of the state. And hospitalization rates where Pitts lives are among the highest in the city. That’s according to a 2016 report from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

Activists worry that a new Fiat Chrysler plant will only increase pollution around here. Fumes from the paint for vehicles have Volatile Organic Compounds – or VOCs.

Michelle Martinez frets over how a spike in these compounds will worsen air quality.

"….that really raised a red flag for us because we’re already in illegal limits for Volatile Organic Compounds here in the Detroit area."

Martinez is a coordinator with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, a group of about 40 members who advocate for the state’s most vulnerable residents. Martinez says Volatile Organic Compounds combine with nitrous oxide and heat to make ground level ozone.

"So on high heat days we get ozone action alerts: Don’t run your lawn mower, don’t fill your car with gas, because those immediate fumes actually create a toxic soup when heated up that make your lungs expand and swell up and it makes it very difficult to breathe."

Because the Detroit region currently has more ozone in the air than is legally allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency... Fiat Chrysler couldn’t build a facility if was going to add to the pollution. Yet the automaker says it found a solution.

Greg Rose is the company’s Environment Health and Safety director.

"When you talk about air quality, you’re really talking about a regional issue. Air is ubiquitous so it doesn’t stay put, it moves around."

Fiat Chrysler designed its proposed factory to heat up Volatile Organic Compounds and break them down before putting them into the air. Rose says that should reduce pollution… but some harmful fumes will still get out. So the company had to think outside the box in order to meet the EPA’s emission standards.

Fiat Chrysler figured out its expected emissions for the new Detroit plant. To offset that, it’s planning to reduce emissions at a nearby plant in Warren by the same amount, plus 10 percent more.

"So net there is a ten percent reduction for the Southeast Michigan area so that the overall air quality in the area has been improved at the same time we’re building a new facility."

Sounds pretty good right? Well, not to Gregg Newsom, an activist living near the forthcoming Detroit plant.

"We have here in the east side of Detroit an increase of emissions in a predominantly black community and in order to do that they are reducing emissions in Warren which is a predominantly white community and you know you just enter into this text book environmental racism equation in order to make this happen."

Newsom and other community members and advocates got a chance to voice their concerns at a public hearing. The Michi  gan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy — known as EGLE — hosted it in April. The regulatory agency also took comments online as part of the air quality permit process.

Regina Strong — the Environmental Justice Public Advocate at EGLE – says she and her colleagues are listening to the concerns of people like Amoni Pitts and Gregg Newsom.

"What we overwhelmingly heard is that people wanted to protect their public health, they wanted to make sure they were okay, those living, surrounding the plant, and they wanted some level of benefit to the community in the process they didn’t want to just have an increase in emissions where they live and not see any opportunities for that to be mitigated in some way."

Outside of the air permit process... Fiat Chrysler already told a Neighborhood Advisory Committee it would do things like build a retention pond, construct a wall around the plant, and fund manufacturing training for high schoolers.

As part of this permit process, EGLE has given the car company until late October to present on two projects: one on additional air monitoring and another on a community benefit of its choosing related to air quality. If EGLE is not satisfied with what’s presented, it can revoke the permits.

Greg Rose with Fiat Chrysler says he’s not sure what the company will be presenting yet.

"We’ll request input from the community – either through the city council or the local community – to make sure that we heard accurately where their concerns were and that these projects had the ability to address them."

In the meantime, EGLE has said that Fiat Chrysler can proceed with its plan to offset emissions in Warren. Which is why construction can be heard from Beniteau – [Ben-ih-toe] street in Detroit.

Loretta Lloyd sits on a porch swing surrounded by bright pink potted flowers. She’ll be able to see the plant from here once it’s finished. In general Lloyd says she sees the 5-thousand promised jobs as progress. And unlike her neighbor Amoni Pitts… Lloyd is one of a handful of residents on this block who say they’re not worried about air quality.

"We’ve got so many things out here in the air and so many things that burn up and – it – I don’t see it being any worse than what we already have. / my husband and I spend a lot of time sitting on the porch but we spend a lot of time in the house – so if the fumes are out here, we’ll just go in the house."

But going inside won’t be enough to curb asthma rates. So activists are knocking on residents’ doors to take inventory of who has breathing problems. They plan to present this information to Fiat Chrysler in hopes of ensuring community health needs won’t be overlooked.