Sustainable reality 

As Vice President Al Gore and thousands of business people, government officials and activists convened at Cobo Hall for last week’s National Town Meeting for a Sustainable America, members of the Sierra Club took people on a street-level tour outlining Detroit’s environmental problems.

The four-day conference addressed such issues as the effects of traffic congestion, energy use and the protection of natural resources in cities. To add dimension to the rhetoric, the environmental group sponsored a "Challenges To Sustainability" van tour through areas of Detroit that present potential obstacles to safe, healthy urban development. "The whole point of the meeting was to talk about sustainable development," said Brett Hulsey, Midwest senior representative. "To have sustainable development, you have to have clean air and clean water. That’s the major concern with Detroit and a lot of urban areas."

Tour sites along the Detroit River such as the Delray Park and Zug Island, home of the Great Lakes Division of National Steel, were used to illustrate the need for stronger government and community efforts to reduce pollution. Despite past government advisories and ongoing efforts by the Sierra Club and other local organizations to warn about the dangers of eating river fish contaminated with mercury and other chemicals, about a dozen people sat in the sun at Delray, hoping to make the catch of the day.

"I’ve seen some fish with some really ugly tumors," said Kathryn Savoie, who directs the environmental program for the Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services.

The tour added a harsh dose of reality to the largely upbeat national meeting.

"It’s not the happy talk we were hearing at the conference," said Hulsey. One example, said Savoie, is the area surrounding the center where she works on the Detroit-Dearborn border. Neighbors of Ford Motor Company’s nearby Rouge Plant experience a higher occurrence of asthma than the rest of the state, she said. Ford officials have been cooperative in addressing community concerns about pollution from the plant, said Savoie.

Anna Holden, chairperson of the club’s Southeast Michigan Chapter pointed out that issues are often not isolated: "There’s a tremendous long-range transport of air contamination: Chicago pollution going to Michigan, Michigan pollution going to Canada."

Urban areas such as Detroit are particularly susceptible to "brownfields," polluted sites where industrial activity once took place. Abandoned structures and equipment at these sites often leave the land contaminated, said Hulsey. Another need is for government, business and the community to come together in attempting to clean up the city’s brownfields, he and others agreed. Fazal Khan, who lives near the Rouge Plant, stopped to observe the Sierra Club delegation as members stood outside observing the area. Khan said he has seen the positive results of efforts to create a safer and cleaner community.

"I can remember green smoke coming out of those stakes," he said, pointing to the Rouge plant. "I’ve seen the air quality change."

Khan pointed to his own case as an example of the change in the area, despite the continuing problems.

"Who would have thought that I would be building a home next to a 40- or 50-year-old house? It’s happening."

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