The Public Health Issues Surrounding the Gordie Howe Bridge
The transportation of market goods and travel by industrialized nations has led to one of the largest public health issues that Wayne County has ever seen. For years, Southwest Detroit has acted as a “Freight Gateway” to the majority of trade between Canada and the United States, allowing over 8,000 trucks per day and $151 billion worth of cargo to be transported through its communities, residential areas, and neighborhoods to eventually make its way to the American consumer (Pianin 2015). To help with the influx of traffic, the State of Michigan and Canada decided to build the new Gordie Howe Bridge for commercial and residential use. However, in the past several decades, Southwest Detroit has been used simply as a stop along the way for freight transportation, allowing trucks to release air and noise pollution in residential areas. These factors have contributed to Southwest Detroit being named the most polluted zip code in the State of Michigan (Kubota 2017). Organizations such as the SW Detroit Community Benefits Coalition have been created to help combat these issues. The New Gordie Howe Bridges' future construction promises to help boost trade and job opportunities for citizens of Southwest Detroit through further residential and freight transportation entry. Yet, data from the SW Detroit Community Benefits Coalition and other organizations suggests that the Gordie Howe Bridge will only add to Southwest Detroit’s pollution issue in an already struggling area.
The Gordie Howe International Bridge was a highly controversial deal made between the State of Michigan and Canada to help boost trade and increase the number of shipping lanes available for goods to travel upon (Gordie Howe International Bridge 2018). This desire to further boost trade has resulted in the environmental needs of Southwest Detroit's 84,000 residents being forgotten (CAPHE PHAP-RM 2016). The SW Detroit Community Benefits Coalition began its campaign in 2008 against the bridge construction and was created to assure the community that their health would be prioritized throughout the bridge’s construction (Mondry 2018). The community found in Southwest Detroit is one of a diverse background, rich cultural identity, and a long history. However, even with this community's rich cultural identity, as of today sees more traffic than any other part of the city (Searcy 2019), and the suburb itself is nowhere near large enough to support both residents and commercial trade. The residents themselves are mostly lower-class Americans, many of whom are immigrants and blue-collar workers. The suburb is home to a mostly Hispanic community, making up about 57% of the area's population, while whites only make up 17% of the overall population. Along with the ethnicities that make up this area, many lack access to quality education, leaving almost half of all adults in the suburb to not possess a high school diploma (Southwest Detroit Neighborhoods Profile 2013). This combination of a lower-class background, large ethnic base, and low level of education has made it easy for companies and freight transportation to easily pollute the community with little resistance.
The pollution issue in Southwest Detroit has been plaguing the community for decades and is something the SW Detroit Community Benefits Coalition has strongly outlined in its fight to end the construction of the bridge. The assortment of corporations releasing harmful air pollution and the traffic from the already existing Ambassador Bridge has made this community the heaviest polluted in the city of Detroit (Martenies 2017), which has had harmful effects on the residents of this area. The major pollutants that affect the residents daily range from smog and toxic aerosols to sulfur dioxide and particulate matter, which have all been linked to human illness, and in extreme cases, fatality. The main fear surrounding the new Gordie Howe International Bridge is that it will increase the amount of diesel pollution that has already entered this community. The inhalation of diesel pollutants alone can lead to a host of illnesses including cancer, heart disease, asthma, stroke, weakening of the immune system, etc. (Diesel Pollution 2019). This becomes a larger issue when we begin to remember that the area is home to 10 schools and an estimated 15,000 children who are more likely to be affected(Southwest Detroit 2013). When the air quality of Metro areas around the United States was tested for diesel pollution, the zip codes of 48217 and 48209 both were ranked among the 96th percentile for pollution (Diesel Pollution 2019). Both of these zip codes belong to the Southwest Detroit area and the community itself has felt the effect of this pollution firsthand. In Wayne County alone, there are an estimated 64 deaths and 173 serious illnesses per year due to these emissions, many stemming from the Southwest Detroit area (Mack 2016).
Advocates for the bridge argue that it is a way to help improve the trade and relations between Michigan and Canada, help expedite traffic, and help supply more job opportunities to the residents of both Detroit and Ontario. Along with these expected economic improvements, the construction project announced multiple benefits specifically for Southwest Detroit residents, including a 14.9-million-dollar initiative to help neighborhood infrastructure (Koziarz 2019), helping Southwest Detroit citizens improve on public needs like better roads and public facilities that were long overdue for repairs. Along with the increased flow of traffic, the bridge is supposed to help reduce the pollution issue plaguing Southwest Detroit by allowing freight trucks to pass through the area at a faster rate and spend less time idling on roads near residential or commercial areas. The main cause of diesel pollution is the idling or slow running of a car while it is stuck in traffic. However the new bridge wil, only reduce the time trucks idle in areas surrounding homes or businesses (Koziarz 2019). Along with the pollution reduction, the construction of the bridge came with 80 new job initiatives that would help bolster job growth and development around the areas most affected by the construction of the bridge (WXYZ 2019). The Gordie Howe Bridge and the large organizations in charge of its creation have made a strong effort to not hurt the Southwest Detroit area, and have provided all the funds necessary to the citizens while the multi-year construction takes shape. The organizations in charge of the creation of the bridge have even started their own health impact report to help calm the public's nerves over the bridge's future effects on the community.
However, the initiatives and economic growth that the bridge, Canada, and the State of Michigan promised may not be as economically extensive as originally promised. The economic growth promised may not be for Southwest Detroit, as the focus was mainly in the technologies and would benefit more corporations and job growth in farther and more industrialized cities in Michigan. The pollution reduction promised by the Gordie Howe Bridge has been controversial due to its inability to prove that the bridge will decrease idling because despite increased road space, the bridge will also increase the amount of trade occurring, essentially nullifying the added space due to the added influx of traffic. Additionally, many of the initiatives and grants provided by the corporations were only supplied after the initial public outrage over the construction of the bridge.
Throughout the bridge's construction, the SW Detroit Community Benefits Coalition has worked to help Southwest Detroit citizens to gain money for the loss of home value and issues that could be incurred with the construction of the bridge. The first was the Home-Swap program that allowed Southwest Detroit citizens to swap their homes in the bridge path with new homes in other areas of the city (Mondry 2018), allowing Southwest Detroiters to not be forced into group homes or onto the street. The SW Detroit Community Benefits Coalition has secured 10 million dollars for job training and placement for citizens of the affected communities and has begun work with the University of Michigan to create a health impact study of the effect of the new bridge on the surrounding community. Dr. Natalie Sampson, one of the researchers working on the study and a member of the SW Detroit Community Benefits Coalition, explained that the cumulative impact of the bridge will not reduce the air pollution in Southwest Detroit neighborhoods, especially those that are near Delray and the Plaza,areas near the path of the bridge) (Sampson 2019). Over the last decade, Dr. Sampson has been researching Southwest Detroit, focusing on the Delray neighborhood directly in the path of the bridge's construction. She explained that the neighborhood has been hit the hardest, as its residents are forced to leave to make room for construction, moving families who have lived in the area for generations to new homes or offering them no assistance and leaving them to deal with the bridge's coming impact. This leaves thousands of people to try to deal with increased emissions and pollution in an already affected community (Sampson 2019).
Southwest Detroit is home to a vibrant community that is not only diverse in culture, but in the people that call it home. Over the last few decades, this refuge for Hispanic immigrants and the lower class has been fighting with the freight trucks that drive over their streets in a battle for clean air. The New Gordie Howe Bridge promises to boost trade and create job opportunities for citizens of Southwest Detroit through further residential and freight transportation. However, the data from the SW Detroit Community Benefits Coalition and other organizations revealed that the Gordie Howe Bridge will only add to Southwest Detroit’s pollution issue in an already struggling area. The Gordie Howe Bridge will be completed as early as 2024, and the effects it will have on this community may continue to pollute this area for years to come. However, The SW Detroit Community Benefits Coalition has not given up and will continue to fight against the environmental injustices found in Southwest Detroit.
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