Detroit’s first new assembly line in 30 years will compound pollution in Black

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Over the last few months, Tanisha Burton has developed respiratory issues for the first time in her life. Her shortness of breath landed her in the emergency room in April, where she was prescribed an Albuterol inhaler to manage the problem. Burton lives on Beniteau Street, located in southeast Detroit. Outside her back door is the recently expanded Detroit Assembly Complex — a massive auto-manufacturing facility consisting of two assembly lines pumping out Jeep Grand Cherokees and Dodge Durangos. 

Burton says the onset of her respiratory issues coincided with the start of construction to expand the plant, which includes the first new auto assembly line in Detroit in 30 years. 

Respiratory issues aren’t the only thing that has changed in Burton’s life during the expansion. An insurance appraiser recently pointed out that the foundation of her home had moved, likely due to the vibrations and shaking produced by the nearby facility. There’s also a constant foul smell, she said, and noise that wakes her up at all hours of the night. It is almost like “you can smell the pollution in the air,” Burton said, “and I hate waking up at three, four in the morning because I hear all this banging.” 

The new and expanded auto assembly lines belong to Stellantis, the fourth-largest automaker in the world, created from the merger of Fiat Chrysler Automobiles (FCA) and Peugeot-maker PSA Group earlier this year. For some Detroiters, the new facility has been a source of excitement and hope. Detroit became known as the “Motor City” because of it’s thriving car-making scene — General Motors, Ford Motor Company, and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles were all founded in Detroit. But in recent years, some have questioned whether Detroit is still the heart of the automobile industry in the United States, thanks to the sharp decline in manufacturing jobs. Between 2001 and 2017, auto-manufacturing jobs in Metro Detroit declined by 38 percent. The expansion of Stellantis’ facility is estimated to bring 5,000 of those jobs back. 

Aerial view of Stellantis's Mack Avenue Assembly Complex
Aerial view of Stellantis’s Mack Avenue Assembly Complex in Detroit.
Stellantis

But there is one major hitch: The complex sits within a low-income and majority Black community in southeast Detroit that is already plagued by pollution from nearby industry, including a General Motors assembly plant, two metal processors, and two major highways that run through the area. 

As part of the approval for the expansion of the Detroit Assembly Complex, FCA, and later Stellantis, had to ensure it wasn’t increasing its overall emissions in the area. Southeast Michigan is already a nonattainment region for ozone levels, regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency. Because of this, no additional activities that produce ozone are allowed. So, in order to expand its Detroit facility on the east side, Stellantis agreed to reduce emissions from its existing plant in Warren, a mostly white, higher income city. Stellantis will reduce emissions in Warren by 10 percent, plus the amount the expanded Detroit facility will produce. 

Activists argue Stellantis’ decision is a clear example of environmental racism — the company chose to reduce harmful air pollutant emissions in a mostly white neighborhood in Warren so that it could increase them in a majority Black neighborhood in Detroit.

“We’ve bailed out FCA multiple times,” Eden Bloom, an organizer for the advocacy group Detroit People’s Platform and a resident in the neighborhood surrounding the assembly complex, told Grist. “And here we are on the eastside of Detroit, giving them another almost half-a-billion dollars for a plant that is in the middle of a high-poverty, high-asthma, 90 percent-Black neighborhood.” 

The asthma rate in the neighborhood around the Detroit Assembly Complex is currently three times higher than the state average, and twice as high as Detroit’s. Ozone is a major trigger for asthma…



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