New Dearborn ordinance aims to reduce air pollution from fugitive dust

Sarah Rahal
The Detroit News

Dearborn — The Dearborn City Council unanimously passed an ordinance Tuesday aimed at reducing air pollution from industrial debris after a nearly two-year push by members of the community.

The ordinance seeks to limit the amount of "fugitive dust" — airborne debris from industrial sites and trucks hauling industrial materials — that is emitted into the city.

State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud, D-Dearborn, along with community activists Salah Ali and Nick Leonard of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, pitched the ordinance to city council about 20 months ago.

It was formed through multiple town hall meetings and conversations with residents in Dearborn's South End, who live in the shadow of Henry Ford's River Rouge Complex and AK Steel plant.

The gate to the Ford Rouge Center complex in Dearborn in December   2003.

Ordinance No. 20-1680 provides for several environmental protections, the city said.

Specifically, the ordinance requires that industrial truck trailers are covered to help keep dust, debris, smoke, odor, vapor and gaseous substances from polluting the air and clouds of it from obstructing traffic.

Companies will be responsible for reducing the dirt and debris that is carried onto public roads from their properties.

Companies must reduce fugitive dust that spills into neighborhoods. 

Violations of the order will result in a ticket of $500 and a repeat fine of $1,000. The fines collected will be used on public health and pollution prevention projects for the city of Dearborn, officials said.

Truck emitting dust in Dearborn, as presented to city council Tuesday.

Activist Salah Ali has lived in the city's South End for 30 years and was appointed by Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. 

"Growing up in the South End, where we're highly saturated by manufacturing facilities, I remember days where I’d go to school and have an odor on my clothes after being washed simply because they were air-dried outside," said Ali, 37.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, the South End was fighting an epidemic of poor air quality that impacted their daily lives, Ali said.

"My mom has COPD and is asthmatic; besides all that, there’s nowhere you can stay outside for more than 20 minutes without a sulfuric order," Ali said. "It’s almost guaranteed. Imagine all the other elements in the air that’s being ingested through breathing. We have to do something."

The coalition filed the 21-page ordinance as an environmental issue; however, an amended, downsized five-page version by council lists it as a public nuisance.

"I was very disappointed that it didn't have much real substance to the second draft," he said. "The classification as a nuisance, meaning they won't take action or do anything unless a resident complains. It's a reactive policy, but it's air quality, by the time it can be investigated, it'll vanish."

When inhaled, fugitive dust can cause airway irritation, coughing and difficulty breathing, and aggravate asthma. As a general public nuisance, it can reduce visibility and contribute to haze, officials said.

“One of the main air pollution issues has to do with particulate matter,” said David Norwood, the city’s sustainability coordinator. “Those are hard on respiratory systems, especially with regard to children and the elderly.”

In February, the Dearborn-Detroit-Warren area was ranked as having the 13th worst air pollution among U.S. metropolitan areas by the Environmental Protection Agency.

Dearborn is above the national average in cases of asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic kidney disease, especially near the Ford Rouge Plant, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's 500 cities project.

“We are the best advocates for our own residents, and so are covering the gaps in what the state of Michigan should be regulating to improve the health of our community members,” Mayor Jack O’Reilly said in a statement.

Truck emitting dust in Dearborn, as presented to city council Tuesday.

Leonard was working with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center to impose a similar ordinance in Detroit when residents in nearby Dearborn said they were having the same issue.

"It’s very unique and concerning situation for residents who live in portions of the South End that are sandwiched in that industrial complex," Leonard said. "When we talk to those residents, they were really concerned with pollution issued from those facilities, but also wanted to talk about what the city could do instead of waiting on the state.

"We really tried to focus in on controlling dust, truck traffic, the many debris coming from trucks on Dix and Michigan Avenue to make sure they're covered up and not cause further emissions," he said.

Environmental activists in southeast Michigan say they have lost battles in the past because environmental issues remain partisan.

"We now have an enforcement mechanism and it’s our responsibility to make sure they follow it," said Hammoud.

"We've noticed there’s also a change in mentality, the way of doing business in Dearborn and that companies are partners in the community," he said. "The South End is the heart of Dearborn, everyone can trace their heritage through there. It's unfortunate that it's the most neglected place and we're trying to change that."

State Rep. Abdullah Hammoud speaks with the coalition in front of Salina Elementary School in Dearborn's South End on Aug. 21.

In April 2018, environmentalists attempted to stop the state from approving a request from DTE Energy Co. to build two natural-gas-fired turbines in a southern area of Dearborn.

The Michigan Department of Environmental Quality approved a permit for DTE to construct the turbines despite calls from activists and residents to delay the process.

Critics argued Dearborn already is overburdened by pollution from other plants and that people at schools, homes and health care facilities could be exposed to more toxic emissions. They had asked the state to delay approving the permit until further health studies on air quality were done, but were unsuccessful.

Officials say the next steps are educating residents on the ordinance, how to file complaints with the city and researching vegetative buffer requirements that can be instituted between property lines.

"We see how it works, and how we can build on it," Hammoud said. "There’s much more that can be done."

Twitter: @SarahRahal_