As electric cars clean the roads, car factory neighbors still hit by pollution



This article is co-published by Energy News Network and Planet Detroit with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University.


While electric vehicles are better for the environment, the factories that produce them may not be. A new report wants everyone – especially automakers and policymakers – to think about how producing ‘green’ cars can still harm disadvantaged communities.

The report – Driving Toward Environmental Justice & Health: Challenges, Opportunities & Tools for an Equitable Electric Vehicle (eV) Transition – is led by consultancy Empowering a Green Environment and Economy (EGE2). EGE2’s mission is to “work with institutions that make decisions that impact communities of color by helping them collect data to make the best decisions that don’t harm those communities who often face injustices. policies,” according to the company’s founder, Dr Jalonne. White Newsome.

Aligning with the timeline for the expansion of the Stellantis plant on Detroit’s east side to produce low-emission Jeep vehicles and GM’s announcement of the reopening of their Hamtramck plant – now Factory Zero – for electric vehicle production, the report highlights best practices for leaders to implement in neighborhoods that have and continue to bear the costs of producing vehicles in their backyards.

Uncovering the historical injustice of the auto industry, examining current issues in the industry, incorporating studies and lessons learned from other regions facing environmental injustice, and considering strategies for automakers and executives to implement as they move toward a greener approach, White-Newsome hoped to capture “the intersection of environmental health and justice in manufacturing within the [electric vehicle] transition,” she said.

Although the study focuses on various areas of the Midwest region, it particularly highlights Stellantis and the impact of the facility on its surrounding community.

The recent expansion of the Mack assembly plant has created more than 3,000 additional jobs and introduced the production of low-emission vehicles. However, since its expansion and involvement in Detroit’s Community Benefits Agreement process, residents and others in the affected area have been wondering who really benefits from the transition.

“Yes, it’s about jobs, but it’s also about making sure that the physical environment and the people who have to live in that environment don’t get worse after this transition,” White-Newsome said. .

While Stellantis has pledged $1 million in neighborhood projects such as stormwater management and pollinator gardens, neighbors say the project ignores the more pressing issue of air pollution.

The auto plant has recently received numerous air quality violation notices, with residents complaining of a bad smell in the surrounding community. Following the violations, the state launched a new website on air quality issues at Stellantis Michigan factories.

Emissions from manufacturing plants are unavoidable, even when transitioning to electric vehicle production. White-Newsome and his team wanted to explore best practices to mitigate this harm as much as possible. The report offers tools such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening Tool (EJSCREEN) for preliminary impact analysis while suggesting more inclusive participation that centers the voices of the impacted community.

The consulting firm interviewed leaders and individuals in the affected area of ​​automotive manufacturing facilities to effectively gather qualitative data to support their research.

“We’ve been dealing with dust and health issues for the past three years and now we’re dealing with unseen things. Nobody can tell us exactly what we’re breathing in. … it’s a joke,” said resident Robert Shobe.

Overall, White-Newsome said, it’s not enough for automakers to declare a greener approach by increasing production of electric vehicles. There will need to be more consideration for a people-centered approach to generation efforts and, even further, a transition from coal-fired power plants.

“Until we start changing the source of our energy, the benefits that could come from electric vehicles may not be truly realized, especially for communities that live near and on the fence of coal-generating plants. “, White-Newsome said.

The report concludes with recommendations for policy change with scopes such as transparency, community benefit agreements and fair incentive programs for electric vehicles.

In addition to the report, White-Newsome urged consideration of battery production and the communities affected by it and its disposal.

“How we extract the materials to build these batteries is something we have to start questioning, and then also where the batteries will end up,” she said. “As we think of batteries once they’re no longer usable and where that waste usually ends up, which is often in hazardous waste sites called Superfund sites if they’re big enough. Those are usually, still a times, located in low-income communities and communities of color.

As the world moves forward in the fight against climate change while continuing to fight for human rights, White-Newsome said the report shows there is still work to be done.

“That’s why this report focuses on the basic environmental concerns that exist in these communities.”

Editor’s Note: This article has been updated to correct incorrect references to Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome’s last name.

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