There was a time when Ophelia Owens blamed bad genes for the asthma that spans three generations of her family. She and her mother both suffer from the potentially deadly malady. So do the youngest of Owens' seven children, a pair of bright-eyed, exuberant boys ages 3 and 5.
Then, last year, Owens and a handful of other Detroit moms with children in the Head Start pre-school program were recruited to participate in an effort involving the University of Michigan and the nonprofit group Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. After attending a workshop put on by the group, and hearing that studies have shown that minorities are disproportionately exposed to pollutants, the women were given disposable cameras and asked to take pictures of their surroundings, showing both the good and bad aspects of their environments.
A year ago, the photos were put on display, and the moms were asked to talk about them. Among the photos was a chilling shot of Owens' two little boys sitting in a hospital emergency room, masks strapped to their faces as they inhaled medicated mist to relieve the symptoms of an asthma attack. She and the children all experienced asthma attacks simultaneously, and with only one treatment device — known as a nebulizer — available, the only option was a hectic dash to the emergency room.
By that point, Owens no longer blamed the asthma running through her family on heredity. The problem, she came to believe, had as its root pollution and not her family tree. And a prime contributor to the toxic stew that forced her to rush her children to the hospital so that they could continue breathing was the Detroit municipal waste incinerator located about 1.5 miles from her family's home near Wayne State University.
Elaine Hockman can't tell you whether Owens' belief is correct. In fact, the former Wayne State statistician won't say the incinerator causes anyone to have asthma. Nor, for that matter, would she claim the incinerator causes cancer or low birth weights, or low test scores.
What she will tell you with absolute certainty is that there's a definite correlation between all of those things and incinerators in general, and the Detroit incinerator in particular.
Find an incinerator like the one near the intersection of interstates 94 and 75 in Detroit and you can accurately predict that there will be certain kinds of health problems at rates significantly greater than you would expect to find under normal circumstances.
That is the inescapable conclusion drawn from analysis of the data, says Hockman, who co-authored a peer-reviewed paper published in 1998 in the Journal of Environmental Planning and Management.
John Waffenschmidt, vice president of environmental science and community affairs for Covanta, the company that runs what it prefers to call Detroit's "waste to energy" facility, hasn't read Hockman's paper, but he questions the relevance it has for Detroit in 2008.
His company didn't begin operating the plant until 1993, three years after the state ordered an upgrade in air-pollution-control equipment that cost the city nearly $180 million.
"The Detroit facility went through a retrofit that wasn't completed until 1995," says Waffenschmidt. "What I find is that there is a tendency for old data to stay alive."
What Detroit has today, he says, "is a well-performing, modern, waste-to-energy facility."
"An objective review of all the available emissions data leads to the conclusion that the facility operates well below permitted limits and does not have any negative impact on human health and the environment," Waffenschmidt says.
Actual emissions of key pollutants such as dioxin, mercury, cadmium and lead are all 50 percent or more below limits allowed by the Environmental Protection Agency, he says.
That may be, counters Hockman, but that doesn't mean they are safe.
Hockman became interested in the issue of environmental justice in the late 1980s after being approached by Bunyan Bryant, a University of Michigan professor credited with helping found the environmental justice movement. Though retired from Wayne State, she continues to work with the University of Michigan's School of Natural Resources and Environment on environmental justice issues.
Central to that movement is the contention that poor people, especially poor people of color, are the ones most likely to be subjected to a disproportionate share of society's harmful waste. Bryant asked if Hockman would help acquire and analyze data to see if there were statistics to substantiate the theory.
What she found when analyzing data for Michigan was startling evidence.
Regarding the Detroit incinerator specifically, Hockman says that neighborhoods around the facility were between 80 percent and 96 percent nonwhite. Combining U.S. Census data from 1990 and 2000, she also found these same neighborhoods to be the state's poorest, with average median household incomes as low as $15,300.
These same areas had asthma rates that were, for the most part, between two and three times what would be considered normal. The farther away from the incinerator you go, the whiter and more affluent neighborhoods become. In neighborhoods outside the city, where household incomes were about $70,000 a year and the communities almost exclusively white, asthma rates were significantly below normal.
Although not as conclusive as Hockman's study, research done in 2005 by Brad van Guilder of the nonprofit Ecology Center in Ann Arbor found that children living in areas around the incinerator are hospitalized for asthma-related problems at rates three times the national average.
Waffenschmidt says it is unfair to lay blame for what are essentially problems typically associated with an urban environment at the waste-to-energy facility's doorstep.
The issue is a complicated one, he explains. For one thing, the electricity and steam produced at the facility are needed, and if burning garbage weren't producing it, it would have to be replaced by another source such as coal. And if you take that garbage — the facility processes 800,000 tons of waste annually — to a landfill instead of the incinerator, there will be more pollution spewing from the exhausts of trucks fueled by diesel and traveling long distances to dumps.
He notes, also, that the incinerator is located at the juncture of two interstates. The amount of pollution coming from the tailpipes idling in rush hour traffic morning and evening is immense. Likewise, there are many other sources of pollution in the area.
He finds no argument from Hockman on that point.
"The people living around the incinerator are already overburdened with environmental and health problems," she says. "They are also the poorest people, with the least amount of resources to fend for themselves and fight against polluters."
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