One Hour Away from Flint, Another Environmental Disaster Looms as Doctors Tell Residents to Move Away for Their Health

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Cason’s doctor told her to move away from River Rouge because of her worsening asthma, but rents are low, and she can’t really afford to pull up stakes. (Zoe Schlanger/Newsweek)
Cason’s doctor told her to move away from River Rouge because of her worsening asthma, but rents are low, and she can’t really afford to pull up stakes. (Zoe Schlanger/Newsweek)

The Flint water contamination has been called one of the nation’s worst cases of environmental racism, but there may be an even bigger problem an hour away in River Rouge, a city on the edge of Detroit.

According to a cover story in Newsweek, the air quality is so bad in River Rouge, a city that is 50 percent Black, that doctors have advised local resident Jacqueline Cason to move away for her health. Cason already has asthma and fears her son will eventually develop the condition.

Newsweek says River Rouge is surrounded by coal plants, a wastewater treatment facility and other industrial sites that produce a toxic mix of pollutants which makes the air smell like rotten eggs.

When asked why the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality wasn’t cracking down on polluters, Lynn Fielder, MDEQ Air Quality Division chief, said negotiations with the companies had been “difficult.”

However, while the MDEQ dallies over cracking down on air pollution, the local residents continue to suffer. And the figures are quite staggering:

  • 15 percent of Detroit residents, which is 85 percent black, have asthma.
  • According to a University of Michigan study, 82 percent of Black children go to school in the most polluted parts of Detroit.
  • Newsweek said there are so many people in River Rouge with asthma that a black market has developed for inhalers. You can get them for as low as $15 on the street.

Environmental racism, a term that was coined in the 1980s, is a real issue. Cities have a nasty habit of ignoring the problems of communities of color when it comes to environmental hazards. And like in Flint, there can be a direct effect on the health of the local population. According to Newsweek, Fresno is California’s most polluted citiy after years of exposure to exhaust fumes and pesticides. As a result of this, an increasing number of local babies are born with asthma.

The Detroit salt mine, next door to the Marathon Oil refinery, is just one of the many industrial facilities nestled up against the small towns that ring Detroit. (Sean Proctor/Newsweek)
The Detroit salt mine, next door to the Marathon Oil refinery, is just one of the many industrial facilities nestled up against the small towns that ring Detroit. (Sean Proctor/Newsweek)

According to Rachel Massey, author of Environmental Justice: Health, Race, and Health, which was published by Tufts University’s Global Development and Environment Institute, environmental polluters are more likely to be located in poor, minority communities.

“Across the United States, poor and minority neighborhoods bear an unequal burden from hazardous facilities and waste sites,” wrote Massey. “This pattern is evident nationally as well as on the state and local level. Pollution is unequally distributed across the country; it is also distributed unequally within individual states, within counties, and within cities. Hazardous waste sites, municipal landfills, incinerators, and other hazardous facilities are disproportionately located in poor and minority neighborhoods.”

In an editorial published in The Detroit Free Press, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, director of the Detroit Health Department, criticized the MDEQ’s foot dragging on environmental pollution.

“Constricted lungs, diseased hearts, tumors in the lungs and beyond: These are consequences that the MDEQ wants Detroiters to accept,” said El-Sayed. “They have done so for years, and enough is enough.”

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