When Detroiter Nancy Heaston and her husband, Joseph, bought a home for their family in the city’s Jefferson Chalmers neighborhood nine years ago, they knew there would be truck traffic nearby. It’s not something that worried the couple, who own their own trucking company. Joseph Heaston is a truck driver himself. They planned a future in a leafy, suburban-style Clairpointe Woods subdivision and hoped to pass it on to their children. 

But Nancy Heaston says in the past few years the trucks have become more frequent, and she is now reconsidering whether her home will be safe or valuable enough to pass along. Outlier Media and BridgeDetroit found that nearly one semitruck per minute passes Heaston’s home to get to a large warehouse across the street that services Stellantis’ Jefferson North Assembly Plant.

“They drive very fast. They come in a line, and they zoom down here,” Heaston said. 

Heaston’s home is among a few dozen within a few blocks east and south of the facility. The truck traffic creates noise and pollution, clogs up the roads and has some residents concerned that it will decrease their home values. With essentially no oversight from city, state or federal authorities residents feel abandoned to heavy traffic at all hours of the day. 

Stellantis and city officials acknowledge the problem around Heaston’s home and told Outlier Media and BridgeDetroit they are working on a plan to reroute the traffic, but residents and advocates take issue with the harm they say has already been caused.

In 2021, the billionaire Moroun family, which owns the warehouse, expanded the building for Stellantis on Freud Street to store and ship parts for its operations.The massive, 30-acre building stretches for nearly half a mile along Clairpointe Street from Jefferson to Freud streets. Scores of 18-wheel semitrucks are docked or parked around the perimeter of the facility at any time.

“It’s getting uglier than prettier,” Heaston said about her neighborhood. “They put all those trailers right there and so it kind of muffles the sound, but now that really decreases my property value because it’s ugly.” The trucks, she said, have ruined the road and knocked down multiple telephone poles, too.

Donna Givens Davidson, executive director of Eastside Community Network (ECN), a community advocacy organization in the neighborhood, argues the city decided it was OK with creating a “sacrifice zone” in the neighborhood by allowing the expansion to happen.  

Two semitrucks passing each other on a street with many potholes and a railroad crossing, next to a sign that reads, “Fiat Chrysler Automobiles. Detroit River Yard - 11860 Freud Ave.”
Almost one truck per minute goes to and from the warehouse at 11851 Freud St. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

“There was no notice,” for residents, Givens Davidson said. “The city knew obviously what was going to happen with that land. And now we need the city to step up and protect us.”

Ron Brundidge, director of the city’s Department of Public Works, noted in a statement that truck traffic is allowed on Freud and Clairpointe – two major roads that lead to and from the warehouse.

Detroit Corporation Counsel Conrad Mallett Jr. added that there is not now, nor has there ever been, a “sacrifice zone” in Detroit.

“The idea this administration would be associated with anything close to a sacrifice zone is reprehensible,” Mallett said. 

Lack of oversight

It’s undisputed that the traffic, noise and emissions from semitrucks harm the health and well-being of people living near heavily trafficked routes. Nevertheless, officials at the federal, state and city levels told Outlier Media and BridgeDetroit they do not monitor truck traffic in Detroit. 

“Diesel exhaust is a human carcinogen. It also contributes to particulate matter, which is known to be associated with increased risk of worsening asthma or possibly causing asthma,” said Robert Laumbach, an environmental health expert and professor at Rutgers University. Detroit’s adult asthma rates are 46% higher than the state average. 

BridgeDetroit and Outlier Media observed the Stellantis warehouse for nearly six hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. over the course of several weekdays in March and counted an average of 55 trucks per hour coming and going from the facility. 

“It is very annoying, just loud, all through the night — continuously,” said Ronald Davis, 30, who has owned a home with his girlfriend in the neighborhood for about six years. 

“My girlfriend and I definitely are frustrated with it,” he said. “It does affect us when we’re trying to sleep. There’s always noise over there.” 

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) monitors ozone, a harmful-to-human health pollutant that exists in truck exhaust, but puts the responsibility for monitoring truck traffic back on the state. 

“The State of Michigan is responsible for developing a plan to bring Detroit into attainment with ozone standards,” Allison Lippert, a press officer with the EPA, said by email.

Southeast Michigan currently doesn’t meet federal air quality standards for ozone. The state recently requested that the EPA ignore air monitoring data in order to reclassify Southeast Michigan as meeting ozone standards. 

The state passed the buck to the city. 

“Truck traffic issues are handled by the City of Detroit,” said Jill Greenberg, a spokesperson for Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. “EGLE does not monitor or permit a shipping center site like this.” 

The city isn’t providing oversight either.

“The Detroit Health Department does not monitor truck traffic or emissions from truck traffic,” Nikita Cargins, spokesperson for the department, confirmed by email. 

Georgette Johnson, a spokesperson for the city’s Buildings, Safety Engineering, and Environmental Department, said by email that the department had not received any complaints about the site and that the Morouns have a certificate to operate as a warehouse. 

Givens Davidson with ECN hasn’t submitted a complaint and also says she is unclear how that process would work.

“(Stellantis is) not acting as good corporate citizens to the residents on the east side,” added Givens Davidson. “It’s up to the city to call them out. The mayor has a lot of influence, but it’s mostly being used to advance the interests of corporations.”

No longer a dream home

The steady stream of truck traffic is just one of the issues residents have experienced since Stellantis — at the time, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles — expanded the former Mack Avenue Assembly plant and updated the adjacent Jefferson North Assembly plant more than three years ago.

Stellantis has faced a bevy of air quality violations at its Detroit plants since the expansion and has racked up seven violations from EGLE for odors and emitting more pollutants than allowed. In 2022, the state and Stellantis signed an enforcement agreement stipulating that Stellantis get the odors under control, pay a fine into the state’s general fund and do an environmental project to benefit the community.  

The pollution coming from trucks going to and from Stellantis to properties like the one on Freud, however, is going unchecked.

The facility is one of three built for Stellantis by Crown Enterprises, owned by the Moroun family. Through a spokesperson, Crown officials said they are just the landlord and have no role in the facility’s operation. In other parts of the city, the Morouns have recently also been under fire for heavy truck traffic and not acting as a good neighbor.  

Both Stellantis and the city said they’re working to address the issue with the facility on Freud.

Red semitruck on a wet street with many potholes, driving around orange road construction barrels, yellow caution tape and plastic tarps strewn across a street corner. In the background is a white, fenced-off industrial building with a sign that reads, “Spencer Butcher Assemble Rite Ltd. Detroit. 11851 Freud Street.”
The warehouse at 11851 Freud St., owned by the Morouns, and leased by Stellantis, has been an environmental stressor for the nearby community. Photo credit: Nick Hagen

“To improve traffic flows in the area, a number of actions are currently being implemented that are expected to redirect or reduce the amount of truck traffic into and out of the facility,” Jodi Tinson, a spokesperson for Stellantis, said by email, actions that include opening new access gates for the trucks.

Johnson said the city is helping Stellantis upgrade Terminal Street on the west side of the facility. Most of the permits have been secured and she expects construction will begin and be completed this year.

“Once Terminal Street is reconstructed by Stellantis, truck traffic will be reduced on Clairpointe,” said Oladayo Akinyemi, deputy director of the Department of Public Works in a statement. 

ECN’s Givens Davidson said the city must address the larger issue. 

“To create environmental harm of a truck per minute and then say we’re working on resolving it, rather than to create something to minimize or mitigate the potential of environmental harm — those are two separate things,” she said. 

“It’s 2023 and we’re still allowing people to do these things by right with no oversight by the city, no oversight by the State of Michigan.” 

‘A lengthy process’

A city truck routing ordinance has been discussed as far back as 2018 when Detroit’s planning department included it in a list of recommended policy changes as part of its neighborhood planning for Southwest Detroit. Former District 6 Councilmember Raquel Casteñada-Lopez was hoping to draft an ordinance before her term ended in 2021. 

Planet Detroit reported in August that current District 6 councilmember Gabriela Santiago-Romero was also interested in pursuing a truck ordinance. Santiago-Romero’s office said it is unlikely to be introduced at council before 2024.

“The Council Member is actively pursuing the creation of a truck route ordinance to help improve the quality of life for those living in residential neighborhoods,” Thomas Rogers, communications manager for Santiago-Romero’s office, wrote in an email. 

Rogers said the city’s Department of Public Works hired a consultant to conduct studies and make recommendations on streets that could be turned into truck routes. 

“This will be a lengthy process. We imagine that it will take at least a year,” he said.  

Santiago-Romero’s office added in a statement that the situation with Stellantis “is another reason we must establish truck routes and other mitigation efforts that center our residents’ quality of life.”

Heaston said she understands why the trucks take her street to get to the warehouse. It’s more complicated, she said, to make the turn onto St. Jean, an alternate route to the Stellantis plant that doesn’t go directly by her home. 

“But my husband said that shouldn’t matter, because if you’re a truck driver, you should be able to do it,” Heaston said. 

While the neighborhood waits on an ordinance, Heaston thinks damage will be done not only to her home’s value but her health. 

The pollution and headache of the warehouse has Heaston and her husband looking to move their family out. 

“Some of us really want to stay in the city. Some of us have been here a long time. But it seems when we go to community meetings, things of that nature, some things just get washed over. Environmental pollution, it doesn’t get as much attention as I think it should,” Heaston said. 

“Wouldn’t it have been nice if we would have been able to stay and transfer this wealth to our daughters? But we’re not going to be able to do that.” 

Aaron (he/him) believes in telling true stories about real people. He doesn’t think there’s anything better than a crisp fall afternoon at the Detroit Jazz Fest.

Jena is a BridgeDetroit's environmental reporter, covering everything from food and agricultural to pollution to climate change.