State faces discrimination complaint over new Jeep plant permit

Breana Noble
The Detroit News

Residents living along the perimeter of the new Jeep assembly plant in Detroit have filed a civil rights complaint with the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing the state of Michigan discriminated against the low-income, majority-Black neighborhood when it approved an emissions permit for the facility.

The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy failed to do its diligence, the Beniteau Street residents argue, by not conducting a cumulative impact analysis of the plant owned by Stellantis NV prior to approving its permit. The result, they say, is discrimination on the basis of race, color and national origin in violation of federal law.

Beniteau Street resident Robert Shobe, 59, worries about the health implications of the new Jeep plant in Detroit following emissions violations issued by the state.

The residents demand assistance for people wishing to leave the neighborhood, more money for home repairs and a requirement that EGLE conduct a cumulative impact analysis during the permitting process. Additionally, if EGLE is found to have discriminated and cannot address the discrimination voluntarily, the EPA could move to terminate funds or refer the matter to the Justice Department for legal action, according to a news release on the complaint.

EGLE's decisions "allowing Stellantis to significantly expand its facilities continues the discriminatory legacy of requiring communities of color to bear the disproportionate burden of the industrial pollution generated by all of society," attorney Nicholas Leonard with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center wrote in the complaint on behalf of five residents.

EGLE is reviewing the complaint, spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said Tuesday, and didn't have further comment on it. Stellantis declined to comment on the complaint.

Robotos in the base coat booth in the paint shop at Stellantis’ Detroit Assembly Complex on Mack Avenue apply the color to the body of a Jeep Grand Cherokee L. The company invested $1.6 billion to repurpose two existing facilities and build a paint shop.

In recent weeks, the Mack Assembly Plant producing the Jeep Grand Cherokee L three-row SUVs has received three air-quality violations from EGLE. The violations come after residents complained about strong paint odors and from an inspection that found emissions weren't being ducted properly through equipment that destroys potentially harmful pollutants. The same problem was found at Stellantis' updated Warren Truck Assembly Plant.

The violations won't necessarily result in penalties. They prompted U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit; State Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit; and Latisha Johnson, city coucilmember-elect for District 4, this week to urge EGLE "to hold Stellantis accountable with the heaviest possible fine that has an actual deterring effect" and a consent decree with a "robust" supplemental environmental project, including voluntary relocation assistance and increased home repair assistance.

EGLE Director Liesl Clark confirmed in a statement that she received the letter and that meetings will be held to discuss the situation: “EGLE welcomes dialogue with elected representatives from the community, and we are glad to partner on solutions."

In a statement, Stellantis spokeswoman Jodi Tinson said regarding the violations: "Our focus continues to be on resolving these issues."

That includes installing new ducting, hiring a third-party engineering firm to investigate the cause of odors, and setting up a community hotline for residents to call with complaints, which the automaker says will help it to respond to complaints faster. The elected officials, however, took issue with the hotline and the confusion it has created in the community with EGLE’s 24/7 Pollution Emergency Alerting System hotline. Complaints to that hotline have resulted in the violations.

"How, if at all, is the hotline coordinated with EGLE’s accountability efforts?" the politicians asked in their letter to EGLE. "For example, is Stellantis obligated to share complaints reported through its hotline directly with EGLE? Are EGLE investigators dispatched after Stellantis receives a call indicating the presence of odors or other risks to public health? Can complaints reported to the Stellantis hotline result in the issuance of a violation notice by EGLE?"

Stellantis isn't required to share information from the community hotline with EGLE, Greenberg said, and the EGLE encourages residents to contact the state agency directly at 800-292-4706.

The company hasn't received any calls to its hotline since it went live on Nov. 1, Tinson said. It intends to share a summary of information, including descriptions of any complaints, as a part of the 90-day report it plans to file with EGLE in January. The automaker says it then will share that information quarterly with the agency and the community.

The Beniteau residents, whose backyards border the $1.6 billion expanded Detroit assembly plant's site, allege EGLE violated Title VI that requires "no person in the United States shall, on the ground of race, color, or national origin, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any program or activity receiving Federal financial assistance.”

At the crux of their argument is that the Mack Assembly Plant, which began delivering vehicles to dealerships in June, has a disproportionate impact on a majority-Black community that already faces increased risks for health conditions such as asthma.

In order to obtain the permit, Stellantis had to decrease emissions at another site, because it was increasing them at the former Mack Avenue Engine Complex with a new paint shop. The plants emit volatile organic compounds that when combined with the atmosphere create the toxic gas ozone. Southeast Michigan has failed to meet the EPA’s National Ambient Air Quality Standard for ground-level ozone since 2018. EGLE can require the offsets be made in the seven-county region, but doesn't have the power to specify where.

Stellantis decreased emissions in Warren, an action that is reducing 30% of VOC emissions in southeast Michigan, according to the company. The Mack plant in Detroit has the lowest volatile organic compound emissions rate of any U.S. assembly plant in the country, the automaker also has said.

Within a one-mile radius of the Warren plant, however, 52% of residents are people of color compared with 98% around the Detroit plant, according to the EPA's environmental justice screening and mapping tool.

"EGLE’s decision," Leonard wrote, "to issue numerous permits requested for the Stellantis Complex in a short period, which allowed for a significant enlargement of air emissions in a low-income community where nearly all residents within 1 mile are people of color already inundated by other industrial sources, amounts to discrimination of the basis of race, color, and national origin."

The complaint said census tracts surrounding these Stellantis facilities exhibit levels of asthma prevalence among adults 130% to 176% above rates of the state as a whole, according to data from the Centers for Disease Control. The Mack plant's zip code is one of several in the city to have the highest asthma hospitalization rates for both adults and children, according to the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services.

"The disparate health impacts that would occur by increasing emissions among a Black community with uniquely high levels of respiratory disease while decreasing emissions in a community with less people of color," Leonard wrote, "was not taken into account when granting the permits."

By not including an impact analysis during the permit processing, EGLE, then, cannot know if it is in compliance with Title VI, Leonard concluded.

"The intent behind EGLE’s decisions permitting Stellantis to further inundate a community so vulnerable to the effects of increased levels of pollution may not have been to discriminate," he wrote. "Sadly, the effects of their decisions have been to cause considerable and discriminatory harm."

Twitter: @BreanaCNoble