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The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy is the target of a federal civil rights complaint alleging racial discrimination over permits it issued for the Stellantis complex in Detroit.
The complaint was filed last week with the Environmental Protection Agency by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center on behalf of residents living nearby the new Detroit Assembly Complex, a Jeep production facility consisting of the Mack Assembly and the Jefferson North Assembly plants on the city’s east side.
The complaint says the department failed to conduct “cumulative impact analysis” for the neighborhood surrounding the plants. It also alleges “discriminatory harms” imposed by EGLE allowing Stellantis to offset an increase in volatile organic compounds emissions at its Mack assembly plant — where 98 percent of people living within one mile are people of color— by reducing emissions at its Warren Truck Assembly Plant some seven miles away, where 52 percent of those living within one mile are people of color.
“EGLE’s decision to issue numerous permits requested for the Stellantis Complex in a short period, which allowed for a significant enlargement of air emissions in a low income community where nearly all residents within one mile are people of color already inundated by other industrial sources, amounts to discrimination of the basis of race, color, and national origin,” according to a copy of the complaint.
Those listed in the complaint are nearby residents Victoria Thomas, Tanisha Burton, Akishia Hunter, Binh Phung and Robert Shobe.
Shobe, a resident of Beniteau Street, which borders the Jeep assembly complex, has been outspoken about a pungent paint smell he said has hurt the quality of life in the area.
“I’ve been a prisoner in my home for at least the last four months because I only come out when I have to,” Shobe last month told Crain’s Detroit Business, an affiliate of Automotive News.
“EGLE has received the complaint and it is currently under review,” the department said in an email. “We have no further comment at this time.”
Crain’s reached out to Stellantis for an update on its plans to rectify plant ventilation issues in Detroit and Warren, as well as the odor problem in Detroit.
The automaker, whose North American base is in Auburn Hills, has faced numerous violations from the state regarding air quality in the past few months.
The first violation was issued Sept. 20 at the Mack assembly plant after inspectors documented “persistent and objectionable paint/solvent odors,” about which nearby residents said they been complaining since the plant opened in late spring.
The second violation for the plant came Oct. 20 due to the company violating its emissions permit, and the third was issued earlier this month, again for the paint odors.
The Warren plant was hit with a violation at the beginning of the month for improperly installed ventilation equipment.
EGLE has since set up a website devoted to tracking air quality enforcement at Stellantis plants in Michigan.
Stellantis spokeswoman Jodi Tinson previously said the company would begin work on the ventilation systems later this month and is targeting completion by the end of the year.
However, the source and solution for the odor problem in Detroit has yet to be identified. The automaker contracted an independent engineering firm to address the problem but has not offered a timetable for solving it.
“We take these odor concerns very seriously, and we are working expeditiously to identify and manage potential sources,” the company said last month in response to the EGLE violations.
The city of Detroit has deferred to EGLE for comment on the air quality issues of the Jeep assembly complex. City Council approved a resolution earlier this month urging Stellantis to take extra voluntary steps to address pollution concerns.
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, state Sen. Stephanie Chang, D-Detroit, and Latisha Johnson, elected to City Council this month, sent a letter to EGLE this week requesting the department require Stellantis to pay for the damage caused by the plant, the Detroit Free Press reported. EGLE-issued violations have so far not come with fines.
The civil rights complaint argues that actions taken to help the neighborhood before the Detroit complex opened — including construction of a concrete barrier between Beniteau Street backyards and the plant, as well as $15,000 in home repair grants through the city’s community benefits ordinance — were insufficient.
“The operation of the Stellantis Complex quite literally in the backyard of a dense urban neighborhood creates numerous adverse environmental impacts that have already begun to cause severe consequences for the health and wellbeing of nearby families,” the complaint says.
The complaint calls for EGLE to adopt a policy requiring cumulative impact analyses so as not to “compound the disproportionate burden of air pollution borne by Michigan’s low-income communities of color,” as it alleges was done in Detroit. It also seeks unspecified financial support for residents to sell homes and relocate.
“Adequate financial and administrative support must be provided for the purchase of new properties, relocation costs, and addressing long term impacts of displacement such as mental health assistance, employment and education resources, and access to healthcare,” the complaint says.
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