Protesters voice anger over Mich. environmental issues

Leonard N. Fleming
The Detroit News

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality has failed to protect citizens from health hazards and that it needs to enforce stricter standards regarding water and air quality as well as drilling, activists protesting against the state agency said Thursday.

About 30 protesters, who stood in front of Cadillac Place in Detroit, where the DEQ has an office, took to task the well-documented problems with contaminated Flint water, but also potential for oil drilling at a Southfield church, a permit petition for an expanded waste facility in Detroit to concerns over sulfur dioxide emissions from the Marathon Petroleum refinery along Interstate 75 near the Rouge River border.

“We’re out here today because we have seen where MDEQ has put industry and profits and bottom lines above human health,” said Kim Hunter, social justice media coordinator for Engage Michigan, a advocacy group.

“The examples are Flint where they switched from Detroit to Flint water and Marathon Oil putting SO2 into the atmosphere. The people who are supposed to be our watchdogs are not paying attention to human health. They are paying attention to folk’s bottom lines. And we don’t think that that’s acceptable.”

DEQ spokeswoman Melanie Brown responded Thursday, saying the agency is “committed to protecting the health of Michiganders in communities across the state.”

“We appreciate public input and passion around these difficult topics, and we remain dedicated to prioritizing the protection of public health and the environment,” she said.

Mary Ellen Howard, a retired nurse who is a nun with Sisters of Mercy in Detroit, said her chief concern, among others, is the lack of quality air in Detroit.

“The air we’re breathing in Detroit ain’t good,” Howard said. “And we’ve got to do something about it. Until the Flint debacle, I really trust that ... naively ... that MDEQ was on our side. They are going in the absolute wrong direction. What’s the answer? The answer is better regulation of businesses of our air quality.”

State officials have worked since 2010 to find steps that would reduce harmful sulfur dioxide in southwest Detroit. On June 1, the DEQ submitted a plan of action to the EPA for reducing air pollution coming from four other industrial operations in the area, including addressing sulfur dioxide emissions.

Marathon Petroleum also has agreed to take steps that will reduce sulfur dioxide emissions by 28 tons per year starting next month. In addition, that level will reduce by another 7 tons a year beginning in 2019.

The activists on Thursdasy, in addition to holding protest signs criticizing the agency, displayed a report card that gave the DEQ a failing grade on everything from potential drilling in Southfield to Flint’s water crisis.

Rashida Tlaib, a former state representative who now works for the Sugar Law Center for Economic & Social Justice, said the DEQ needs to be held accountable for “protecting our public health, protecting our environment” but that she’s seen “excuses after excuses and lack of leadership that led to the Flint crisis and lead to the high rise of asthma and respiratory diseases in southwest Detroit.”

“It’s time to make our health your highest priority,” she said. “It’s time to tell Gov. (Rick) Snyder you cannot go against your mission.”

lfleming@detroitnews.com

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Twitter:@leonardnfleming