Dirty steelmaking unfairly threatens low-income communities

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By Jada Vasser

Michigan residents and activists are pushing the auto and steel industries to buy cleaner, more sustainable steel to clean up pollution in the Detroit-Dearborn area.

Recently Industrious Labs, a climate advocacy group, gave guided tours of Detroit and Dearborn auto and steelmaking factories to try to convince automakers to switch from steel produced traditionally into sustainable, cleaner steel. Known as “green steel,” it is cleaner because it is produced by a cleaner method using hydrogen and renewable resources, according to Industrious Labs.

The organization says that heavy industry contributes 24% of greenhouse gas emissions, making it the largest source of climate pollution.

The idea is to reduce pollution to help nearby communities. Michigan is known for automaking, but most people do not realize that one of the largest sources of pollution from these vehicles is steel, said Hilary Lewis, steel director at Industrious Labs.

“I think this is true across the U.S. that steelmaking and the auto industry are connected but it is not as obvious in other places,”  Lewis said. “We were trying to draw attention to the huge climate pollution issue associated with the way steel is made and the health-harming air pollution.”

The push for this cleaner steel is immediate and significant. With higher rates of sickness and disease in areas where steel industries are located, the process raises the immediate concern of the people that reside nearby, Dearborn resident and environmental activist Samra Luqman said. Homes, schools, parks and other community properties near industries like Dearborn Works and the Dearborn Industrial Generator power plant say that they are in a sickness cluster.

“My main objective was to show the environmental health impacts on this community in order to produce change and that change being to get cleaner steel-making processes in place,” Luqman said.

“While nasal cancer is one of the rarest in the U.S., I personally know five people who have died from it. A cancer cluster that has never even been studied is happening in my neighborhood because of the facilities with steel.”

Dirty steelmaking leads society into further natural resource dependency, adding to the pollution of the communities in the same vicinity of these facilities, Lewis said.

Dirty steel refers to steel created in facilities that rely on coke-burning furnaces.  They emit toxic air pollution like metals that disproportionately harm nearby Black,  Brown and low-income communities. According to the EPA, 47% of the people by the Dearborn Works facility, one of the main facilities emitting these toxic substances, are people of color.

“Nobody really policed them when they were putting the (facilities) there and it’s been there so long, they’re allowing (them) to stay,” activist and Detroit resident Theresa Landrum said. “There is continuous work going on that’s hurting these residential zones.”

Landrum said that throughout her work she has been adamant on showing how these facilities and the works they do harm nearby residential zones. No one talks about issues such as the dust that flies in the air and how that leads to lifelong illnesses for these residents, she said. Trucks that travel to and from these facilities have also harmed roads and created noise pollution. These health and safety problems threaten everyone there, especially children, she said.

“We were trying to work on specific truck routes so that the trucks would not be coming down streets that are heavily populated with people and children during school hours … the bus would be intertwining with trucks and 18-wheelers, that’s dangerous,” Landrum said. “The weight of the trucks have been tearing up our roads, so it’s a lot that comes from that.”

Switching to green steel can also produce cleaner air worldwide. Steel is 65% of a vehicle’s weight. Some auto companies are making efforts to move towards cleaner steel, according to Industrious Labs. Ford and GM have signed a “First Movers” pledge, signaling a change to start purchasing near-zero emission steel by 2030. But no U.S.-based automaker has signed a contract speaking on the change to green steel, Lewis said. Automakers making the first move to change can solidify a change on the steel producer’s behalf as well.

Fossil-free steel production is possible today, thanks to a proven method of ironmaking known as direct reduced iron,  Lewis said in a statement. Rather than using fossil fuels, it is powered by hydrogen generated from renewable energy.

“US steelmakers can become leaders in green steel, creating jobs and reducing harmful pollution while meeting the growing demand from the auto industry,” she said.



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