Inslee details new 'Community Climate Justice' plan in Detroit

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Detroit — Washington Gov. Jay Inslee made his second visit to what he calls Michigan's most polluted ZIP code on Monday to unveil a new initiative centered on defeating environmental injustice.

Washington Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee holds a press conference to introduce his "Community Climate Justice" plan across the highway from the Marathon Oil refinery, in Detroit, Michigan on July 29, 2019.

The Democratic presidential candidate gathered with a small group of community activists in a field behind the Kemeny Recreation Center on Fort Street to detail his new "Community Climate Justice" plan. The southwest Detroit gathering spot for children and families sits next to the Marathon Oil Refinery, which has long fueled complaints over the plant's emissions.

The former congressman first visited the neighborhood in early June. He returned as part of the Detroit leg of his "Climate Mission Tour" just ahead of a series of Democratic candidate debates being held downtown on Tuesday and Wednesday. 

Inslee, who has had limited air time in prior televised candidate forums, said his climate action plans set him apart from the two dozen other candidates in the field vying for the Democratic nomination. He maintained it remains the key issue to be addressed by his challengers. 

"We need a president to lead the full-scale mobilization of the United States to defeat the climate crisis," Inslee, who was dressed in a blazer and dark blue jeans, told a group of reporters. "We're going to find out who has that plan. I'm confident that I do. Others have been too little, too late and too timid."

The state government could not confirm that 48217 is Michigan's most polluted zip code.

"It is difficult to answer the question ‘where is the most polluted zip code?’ because it depends on how you evaluate the available information and which pollutants you consider," said Scott Dean, spokesman for the state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy.

In 2016, the state did a one-year study with an air monitoring unit in the area that found that "Overall the levels of the measured pollutants during the 48217 study were not the highest in the state," Dean added in a statement. 

Inslee said his latest plan would require a new federal focus on environmental justice, hold corporate polluters accountable and call for investments in community-driven efforts to tackle inequality in the areas most impacted by climate change and pollution, according to the campaign.

The proposal calls for "Equity Impact Mapping" to track environmental health disparities and confront racial and environmental injustice in the country's "front-line communities."

It also seeks to establish an Office of Environmental Justice within the U.S. Department of Justice to crack down on corporate polluters and a White House Council on Environmental Justice to center federal policy on equity and inclusion. 

Inslee's "Building a Just Future" plan would guarantee at least 40% of federal investments building a clean energy economy would go to communities facing the greatest burdens of pollution, income inequities and climate impacts. The investment would be at least $1.2 trillon of the $3 trillion in federal investments called for in Inslee's previously announced Evergreen Economy Plan. 

The action plan calls for a nationwide ban on PFAS, a class of chemicals long used firefighting foam, tanneries, metal platers, Scotchgard and Teflon that have been linked to health risks. He's also proposing a Universal Clean Energy Service Fund to reduce energy bills for low-income families. 

Washington Governor and Democratic presidential candidate Jay Inslee holds a press conference to introduce his "Community Climate Justice" plan across the highway from the Marathon Oil refinery, in Detroit, Michigan on July 29, 2019.

Inslee said Monday that past candidate forums have failed to give adequate attention to climate crisis, adding "come hell or high water," he'll make sure that the Democratic Party discusses the climate crisis "and we really figure out who has the chops to get his job done."

Inslee launched his campaign for the 2020 race in March with a $9 trillion climate action plan. He later came out with environmental justice and clean water plans.

The newest environmental plan is built off feedback he received while touring communities hit hardest by environmental hardships, including the Detroit neighborhood near the refinery. 

Marathon Petroleum Corp., which has owned the southwest Detroit refinery since 1959, said during Inslee's visit last month that it's serious about environmental stewardship and has reduced emissions by nearly 80% over the last two decades. 

Lifelong southwest Detroit resident Theresa Landrum has been among those Inslee has called on in Michigan to assess the impact of industry and pollution on neighbors.

"We mirror one of hundreds of communities of color, of black and brown people, that are being severely impacted upon," Landrum said Monday. "What we need is a comprehensive climate justice plan that will stop and end fossil fuels in areas such as mine."

Marathon spokesman Jamal Kheiry said in an email that the company is grateful that Inslee chose the refinery as a backdrop for his announcement and that it was held at Kemeny, which Marathon helped refurbish with a $2 million donation.

Kheiry contends that the refinery's criteria emissions represent 3% of the total emissions in the heavily industrialized two-mile radius around it. In the last five years, he added, greenhouse gas emissions also have been reduced 8% for each barrel of crude oil processed there.

"We have been a part of this community for 60 years, and we look forward to the next 60," he said. 

Guy Williams, who heads Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, said he believes Inslee is genuine about connecting with communities suffering most, such as Detroit. 

"He's doing just what he described," said Williams, who has met with Inslee several times. "He's going out across the country, he's reaching out to people and asking about how to get the best connection to the grassroots. I don't know that other candidates are doing it."

Later Monday, Inslee is expected to travel to Flint to hear from residents about the impact of the water crisis and tour a former elementary school now used as a development center for families. He also is slated to make a stop at the Islamic Center of Detroit on Tuesday morning for a roundtable discussion.