Opinion: Don't sacrifice clean air for jobs

Justin Onwenu and Russell Rader
AK Steel plant on Miller Road in Dearborn, July 27 2017.

Far too often, communities are told by corporations to choose between clean air and good paying jobs, we want both. In our view, being a good corporate neighbor means operating in a manner that is not detrimental to local community health, it means hiring local union workers for jobs that they are well qualified for, and it means engaging local communities in a consistent and respectful manner.

Companies like AK Steel, located in Dearborn, not a mile away from a local elementary school, continue to operate in a fashion antithetical to these terms. Today, we write in opposition to such companies who take our tax dollars, violate environmental health and pollution standards, all while refusing to hire our workers.

AK Steel’s Dearborn facility has maintained one of the state’s worst environmental records. Over the past 10 years, the facility has been issued over 30 violation notices that detail hundreds of permit violations associated with the facility’s steel production.

The minimal steps AK Steel has taken to address community health concerns, has been done as a result of legal action. If AK Steel is serious about being a good corporate neighbor and mitigating adverse health impacts, they should commit to installing air filtration systems in the most vulnerable homes that border their facility.

Unfortunately, it’s not just AK Steel’s environmental record that is abysmal. Two months ago, they announced their plans to use out of state contractors to install a multimillion-dollar pollution control device known as an electrostatic precipitator. They’ve justified their refusal to hire locally by arguing that the project is highly specialized work that should go to prepared, specially trained and qualified workers.

This is blatant misdirection.

Just this year, local trade unions installed a similar piece of technology at the US Steel main plant in Ecorse, Michigan, just a few miles away from AK Steel’s facility. 

If there are highly skilled and qualified union workers right here in this community, why is AK Steel choosing to overlook these local workers?

To rebuild trust with workers and communities AK Steel should consistently hire local union workers and commit to building a more transparent bid process that workers have a fair shot at doing the work they are beyond qualified for. On the environmental justice front, AK Steel needs to take seriously the health impact caused by their clean air standard violations. Lastly, in an effort to improve communication, AK Steel should convene a Community Advisory Panel, that would convene monthly and receive updates from AK Steel officials on worker safety incidences, environmental standard violations, and general plant operation updates.

All communities deserve access to good paying union jobs that offer dignified work and we all deserve to breathe free in a healthy community. Anything less is unacceptable.

Justin Onwenu is environmental justice organizer for Sierra Club Detroit. Russell Rader is a representative of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers Local 58.