Column: Control Detroit’s dust pollution

Peter J. Hammer

In 2013, Detroiters awoke to the shock of finding mountains of petcoke looming over the riverfront. The petcoke incident triggered a growing awareness of the environmental and public health consequences of what is more generally known as “fugitive dust.” It also highlighted the absence of effective legal tools to address the problem. This is no longer the case. The City Council is about to consider a comprehensive ordinance to better monitor and control fugitive dust. This ordinance has important symbolic and substantive significance as Detroit chooses its future.

The City Council has been working on an ordinance to control sources of fugitive dust that embodies these principles. Fugitive dust is a serious environmental and public health concern that requires appropriate control. The ordinance also sends a signal that Detroiters have high expectations for how business should be done and the types of future economic development that should be encouraged.

Fugitive dust is an elastic term describing particulate matter suspended in the air by wind and human activity. The dangerous dust emanating from the mountains of petcoke provide a good intuitive illustration of the problem, but fugitive dust can be associated with large piles of other solid bulk material, such as asphalt millings, gravel, sand, and limestone. Depending on location, fugitive dust can create highly-localized hotspots of particulate matter pollution due to wind blowing dust into nearby neighborhoods, schools and homes. Scientific studies have linked particulate matter pollution to increased rates of respiratory-related hospital visits and the exacerbation of asthma symptoms amongst children. This is particularly concerning because the Michigan Department of Community Health labeled Detroit the state’s “epicenter of asthma” based on its findings that the rate of asthma-related hospitalizations in Detroit is three times the state average.

The ordinance outlines common sense control for facilities that have large piles of bulk solid materials, including development of fugitive dust plans subject to the approval of the Building Safety Engineering and Environmental Department (“BSEED”), maintaining monitors upwind and downwind locations at the facility, and controlling dust being emitted from trucks transporting materials. Additional controls exist for facilities that store any petcoke, coke breeze, met coke, or nut coke. Facilities may apply to BSEED for variances from ordinance requirements where appropriate, like controls Chicago already uses.

The ordinance is also symbolic. It establishes an important template for Detroit’s growth that is brighter and more sustainable. It gets ahead of a growing problem, and adopts national best practices. Detroit is open for business, but development must respect the environment and the health of all residents.

Peter J. Hammer is a professor of law and director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School.