Air pollution respects no boundaries and impacts those who live adjacent to or downwind of the emitting sources. Since the industrial revolution, socially constructed laws and systems created urban environments where the most vulnerable in our society, those of low income and disenfranchised minorities, bear the costs of air pollution in our modern society. Detroit is no exception.

Thomasenia Weston lives in a house in Southwest Detroit just a few blocks from I-75. She raised her daughter and is now raising her two grandchildren in this house. All three generations suffer from severe asthma.

Lauren Santucci, an independent visual journalist working to humanize social and environmental issues through personal stories, recently produced a short film titled Mother about how Thomasenia is raising children and fighting back against air pollution.

This film was the inspiration for an Environmental Justice Forum organized by St. Philip Lutheran Church in Trenton on July 24, 2020. Thirty people from Southwest Detroit and Downriver participated by zoom.

The forum was opened by St. Philip’s Pastor Branden Hunt. A brief primer on environmental justice was given by John Hartig, including how Southwest Detroit has long been recognized for poor air quality, particularly Detroit zip code 48217, which remains among the most polluted in the state. It has the highest asthma hospitalization rates in the State of Michigan. In 2020, the American Lung Association reported that despite improvements in air quality Metropolitan Detroit is still ranked the 10th most polluted city in the United States based on year-round particle pollution.

Thomasenia Weston. Courtesy photo.

The region also experienced more days with dangerous spikes in short-term particle pollution. In 2017, the University of Michigan’s School of Public Health and Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice partnered on a study of human health impacts on residents in Southwest Detroit resulting from exposure to air pollution. This study showed that exposures to fine particulate matter, ozone, sulfur dioxide, and nitrogen dioxide are responsible for more than 10,000 disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) per year, causing an annual monetized health impact of $6.5 billion.

Following the primer on environmental justice, Thomasenia Weston shared her first-hand experiences with air pollution, excessive truck traffic and noise on her street, and water flooding her basement and shared her concerns with what will happen when the new Gordie Howe Bridge will open. Michigan Senator Stephanie Chang also provided remarks about her concerns for environmental justice and current programs and initiatives at the state level and offered to help address Weston’s problems.

A lively discussion generated many suggestions for moving forward, including:

  • Build an environmental justice coalition/partnership between Southwest Detroit and Downriver
  • Help raise money to fix water problems that are being faced by Weston and others in Southwest Detroit
  • Undertake a petition and/or letter-writing campaign targeted at Detroit Water and Sewerage Department to undertake an assessment of the causes of the water problems experienced by Thomasenia and others in Southwest Detroit and call for action to fix them
  • Sinkholes are found in front of Thomasenia’s house and throughout Southwest Detroit – undertake a petition and/or letter-writing campaign targeted at the transportation and water departments to determine the causes and fix the problems
  • It was noted that a traffic study is underway in Southwest Detroit. Upon completion of the study, undertake an educational campaign to raise awareness and address the problems like truck vibrations, air pollution, noise pollution, etc.
  • Undertake letter-writing campaign/petition targeted at the International Joint Commission, Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, calling for sound environmental justice policy that includes assessing cumulative impacts in Southwest Detroit, an air quality enforcement and mitigation fund, community-based monitoring, etc.
  • Fines for permit violations are too low and need to be increased to bring about real change
  • Gordie Howe Bridge can also be viewed as an opportunity to push for pollution prevention, brownfield cleanup, green infrastructure, noise mitigation, and more greenways and parks
  • Write op/ed pieces and articles for newspapers
  • Create an environmental justice insurance fund where the money is pooled to help fix problems like being experienced by Thomasenia Johnson
  • It was noted that the City of Detroit is planning to roll out in the future a Home Repair Fund and Public Health Fund to help address some of the problems discussed. This needs to be tracked and information disseminated broadly.
  • A Civil Rights Complaint could be filed to address environmental justice in Southwest Detroit
  • Downriver residents noted that they are facing similar problems with the rezoning of the former McClouth Steel plant in Riverview and Trenton
  • It was noted that we must continue to learn together, think together, and act together to ensure environmental justice for all.

Pastor Branden Hunt concluded the forum with thanking all for their participation and with a benediction. For additional information or to get involved contact St. Philip Lutheran Church at