Since the early days of the environmental justice movement, Guy Williams has worked to reduce environmental health disparities by seeking far-reaching solutions and fostering long-term relationships among local community members, academic researchers, business owners, and decision makers.
Twenty years ago, Williams helped to found Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ), a community organization that has fostered clean, healthy, and safe communities through innovative policy, education, and workforce initiatives. Today he leads the organization as president and CEO.
Williams first became aware of environmental justice issues while working at the Environmental Defense Fund. In 1990, several environmental justice leaders signed a letter accusing 10 of the largest and most influential environmental groups of racism in terms of their policy development, hiring, and the composition of their boards. The letter challenged these groups, including the Environmental Defense Fund, to address environmental issues experienced by people of color and the poor.
After looking into the allegations against his employer, Williams came to believe that they were true. “Rather than leaving the Environmental Defense Fund, I decided that I should stay and work to become part of the solution,” he says. “That decision set the course for everything I’ve done over the last 25 years. It put me on a path to working on the front lines of engaging businesses that would typically be called the polluters and learning more about the manufacturing processes and how those could be improved to make them more environmentally safe.
After working to promote change at the Environmental Defense Fund for four years, he took a position with the National Wildlife Federation office in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Williams then connected with a group of people in Detroit who were seeking to elevate the understanding of environmental justice issues facing the area. They would go on to form DWEJ in 1995.
Improving Detroit’s air quality
“In my early environmental work, I worked with colleagues who tried to find large-scale innovative solutions that were broad and sweeping for an entire industry,” Williams said. “Because of this experience, I tend to look for large-scale solutions for problems such as those in Detroit, where one of our main issues is the lack of air quality.”
Today, DWEJ is helping address the air quality problem by partnering with Amy Schulz, Ph.D., from the University of Michigan to develop an evidence-based Clean Air Action Plan that is designed to drive change from the local level upwards. This project, called Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CA-PHE), is funded by the NIEHS Research to Action Program.
CA-PHE (pronounced “café”) draws on the more than 20-year-old relationship between DWEJ, the University of Michigan School of Public Health, and other community partners. The groups have collaborated on a variety of community-based participatory research projects aimed at improving environmental health. One of DWEJ’s primary roles in these projects is helping to engage the public in the research on a regular basis and in a substantive manner.
For CA-PHE, DWEJ plans to hold small-group meetings with key advocates or activists who have expressed interest in improving Detroit’s air quality. These meetings will offer the opportunity to share research findings with attendees and receive input on how the findings could best be applied while taking into account real-life challenges faced by people in Detroit. DWEJ is also working to engage various coalitions, networks of practitioners, and decision makers in the development of the Clean Air Action Plan.
“Our rich history, not only our own organizational history, but also our history of teaming with the other partners, provides confidence that once the research is finalized, we’ll be very successful at dissemination,” Williams said.
DWEJ has been involved in numerous important initiatives that are improving lives for people in Detroit and raising awareness of environmental justice issues. For example, the organization collaborated with U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Region 5 and researchers from Wayne State University to raise awareness of the potential dangers of demolishing thousands of homes in the city without the proper safeguards for mitigating the spread of lead dust. This work led to significant changes in contracting and demolishing requirements, which were recognized with an EPA award to the city of Detroit.
In 2014, the Detroit Free Press recognized Williams’ work in Detroit by naming him a Michigan Green Leader. “I’m honored to be considered one of the key opinion leaders on the environment and feel like I’ve worked hard to be a credible source of information that helps make positive change possible,” said Williams. “I’ve hopefully inspired a lot of creative solutions in my career so far, yet we have much more to do. There are still many people suffering needlessly from how we deal with our pollution and the toxic chemicals manufactured and invented here in Detroit.”
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE:
Thursday, May 19, 2016
Contact: Nick Dodge, (517) 333-1606
Leading Michigan environmental groups blast Nofs energy plan
Environmental, conservation groups agree: Nofs energy plan a dangerous step backwards for Michigan
LANSING – Environmental groups across Michigan today sent a strong public message slamming the energy bills introduced by State Senator Mike Nofs (R-Battle Creek). As Senator Nofs attempts to gather enough votes to move the bills out of committee, environmental groups warn that removing or weakening energy efficiency and renewable energy standards will increase dangerous pollution and increase costs.
“The good news for Michigan is that our efforts over the last seven years have resulted in record low prices for renewable energy. The bad news is that utilities are not taking advantage of those opportunities to protect our public health and the pocketbooks of Michigan families,” said James Clift, Policy Director of the Michigan Environmental Council. “The Nofs energy plan fails to utilize inexpensive renewable energy that would cut costs and reduce dangerous pollution.”
“The Nofs plan is irresponsible and would destroy Michigan’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards that curb dangerous pollution and protect our land, air and water,” said Clay Carpenter, Campaign Organizer for Clean Water Action. “It’s time for Michigan residents to take control of our energy future and hold big polluters accountable for spewing dangerous pollution into our air, lakes, rivers and streams.”
“We need an energy plan that reduces pollution, reduces waste and cuts costs for ratepayers,” said Mike Berkowitz, Legislative Director of the Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. “The Nofs energy plan gets rid of Michigan’s energy efficiency standard, which holds utilities accountable for costs, reins in energy waste, and protects us from air pollution.”
“Energy efficiency and renewable energy maintain affordability, lower ratepayer risk and reduce pollution, yet Michigan continues to over-rely on burning coal imported from other states,” said Sam Gomberg, Lead Midwest Energy Analyst with the Union of Concerned Scientists. “The Nofs energy plan undermines the progress Michigan has made in terms of expanding renewable energy and energy efficiency that provide significant benefits to ratepayers and create clean energy jobs right here in Michigan.”
“It would be a shame to see energy efficiency programming slashed in West Michigan with the passage of the Nofs energy bills,” said Nick Occhipinti, Policy Director of WMEAC. “We need an energy policy that is clean and fair and holds big utility companies accountable while moving Michigan toward a sustainable energy future.”
“This bill represents wrong-headed thinking that does almost nothing to support the expansion of jobs in the clean energy sector, and it perpetuates old strategies that will continue to trigger poor health for thousands of Michiganders,” said Guy O. Williams, President and CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice. “The Nofs energy plan allows utilities to keep polluting the air we breathe and the water we drink, threatening Michigan’s most vulnerable populations.”
“The Nofs energy plan would increase dangerous pollution and threaten the health and well-being of Michigan residents,” said Alexis Blizman,Legislative and Policy Director of the Ecology Center. “With asthma rates well above the national average, Michigan’s energy policy should reduce dangerous pollution through strong standards that protect public health.”
“Michigan needs strong energy legislation that encourages innovation, competition and choice. The Nofs energy plan hinders innovation by requiring Michiganders to pay for the energy they generate themselves,” saidMargrethe Kearney, Staff Attorney at the Environmental Law & Policy Center. “Rather than taking a step backward, we should be working to create policy that allows consumers to make the best choices for their individual energy use and for Michigan’s energy future.”
By Ben Adler on Jun 9, 2015
You could be forgiven for thinking Detroit’s current situation couldn’t get much more grim: poverty, unemployment, abandonment and vacancy, civic bankruptcy, rampant crime and tax evasion, an inability to deliver basic services. What other plagues could possibly hit the city?
Well, brace yourself, because things will be getting much worse. Climate change will mean more extreme weather for Detroit: more powerful storms, more heat waves, more extreme cold and heavy snow. In fact, it has already begun, with unusually severe winter weather the past two years and flooding last summer caused by massive downpours.
Cities throughout the U.S. will suffer from more extreme weather due to climate change, of course, but the impact will be particularly severe in Detroit because it has a population with greater needs and a local government with fewer resources to meet them. “Poverty amplifies everything,” says Guy Williams, CEO of Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice (DWEJ).
Take heat waves. Detroit has many poor, elderly people in old, decaying houses. As the houses have aged, they’ve developed cracks and leaks that make them even worse at regulating temperatures. Low-income homeowners often don’t have air conditioners, so when a heat wave of several days above 90 degrees strikes, they’re going to be miserable, and their lives might even be endangered.
Like other low-income inner-city residents, Detroiters have elevated rates of asthma. “Roughly 13.7% of all Detroiters suffer from asthma,” the Sierra Club noted in a report in 2013. “The Michigan Department of Community Health has found that Detroit adults suffer from asthma 50% more than the state of Michigan as a whole.” With higher temperatures, there will be more production of ground-level ozone, which causes asthma rates to increase further and triggers more asthma attacks for those who already have the disease.
Even those without asthma will suffer from the heat. Average temperatures in the Great Lakes region are expected to be 3.6 to 11.2 degrees F higher by the year 2100, the Sierra Club reports, which will lead to a “considerable increase” in what public health experts call Excessive Heat Event (EHE) days:
Detroit is projected to experience 4,109 additional EHE mortalities by mid-century and 17,877 by the end of the century. EHE days can provoke or exacerbate life threatening illnesses, such as kidney diseases, cardiovascular disease, heat exhaustion and heat stroke. …
The populations most vulnerable to heat waves are the elderly, the infirm, young children, the poor, as well those comprising minority ethnic and racial demographics. Residents of city centers are more vulnerable to the effects of heat because paved surfaces and infrastructure magnify the heat’s intensity (the urban heat island effect). As Detroit is an urban center lacking tree cover, it is particularly vulnerable to this type of excessive heat buildup.
Detroit has suffered such massive abandonment that two-thirds of its peak population is gone. The remaining population isn’t evenly distributed; the more affluent neighborhoods are still fully inhabited, while the poorest may have entire blocks with only one occupied house remaining. Many of the poor people in these mostly empty areas do not have cars. Nearly 30 percent of Detroit households are car-free, largely for economic reasons. The city sets up cooling centers on the hottest days, but can those without air conditioning actually get to them? Walking miles in the heat, or standing outside waiting on unreliable bus service, could be even more dangerous than staying inside.
“The flip side is even more pernicious in the wintertime,” says Williams. “Last year we had record-breaking snow piling up. This year we had record cold. It got passé to see a minus temperature when I got up in the morning.” Heavy snow is a hugechallenge for Detroit because it has been left with such an enormous network of streets to plow relative to its small and shrinking tax base. Record cold temperatures, meanwhile, threaten the health and safety of the elderly — especially the poor and car-less — just as heat waves do.
Williams, who has a bespectacled look and understated manner vaguely reminiscent of the comedian Larry Wilmore, drives me around Detroit and points to spots where extreme weather is likely to wreak havoc. On the city’s East Side, he notes that the Fox Creek canal overflowed up into the adjacent houses last summer. Some basements filled with as much as eight feet of water, ruining furnaces that cost thousands of dollars to replace. Some people are still cleaning mold out of their basements. “With climate change, we’re projected to get the floods we had in August three to four times per summer,” says Williams. These costs and hassles worsen the already dubious value proposition of living in Detroit and threaten to push some homeowners out of the city. “We’ve lost a few numbers, people who felt they couldn’t rebuild,” says Joshua Elling, executive director of Jefferson East Inc., an economic development corporation on Detroit’s East Side.
Going down the freeway toward Downtown, Williams points to a dip in the road: “There were puddles several feet high here,” he says. Flooding a highway in the middle of town brings traffic, and thus commerce, to a halt. In the case of last summer, the disruption lasted for days.
Detroit, despite all its vacant property, suffers from a dearth of pervious surfaces, so a heavy rain backs up quickly. The Detroit area has an unusual water system, in which the street storm drains send water directly into the sewers that also receive household waste water. So what happens when a powerful enough storm hits? The drains get backed up, the streets flood, and home basements fill with sewage.
Eddy Lester is the president of Creekside Community Development Corporation, which works in the Jefferson-Chalmers neighborhood of Detroit, where Lester has lived since the 1940s. “Now the harder rains are more frequent,” he says. In August he got two feet of water in his basement. “We had to tear up the hardwood floor and carpeting, because it was a finished basement,” says Lester. “If you tried to drive some of the streets, your car would flood out, so you had to stay home.”
But Detroit doesn’t have to just suck it up and take all the coming abuse. There is a lot the city can and should be doing to reduce the effects of extreme weather. In 2011, the DWEJ convened business, philanthropic, and environmental organizations into the Detroit Climate Action Collaborative (DCAC). They have a set of working groups focused on issues from parks to energy. Through meetings with community members, they are trying to develop a climate action plan for adapting to the effects of global warming and reducing the city’s greenhouse gas emissions. Although their final recommendations have not yet been released, there are some elements that will clearly be included, such as:
Efforts in many of these areas have already started, in both the private and public sectors. Hantz Farms, for example, is a tree farm business started on a collection of previously empty lots and abandoned houses bought from the city of Detroit in 2012 by John Hantz, a local financial services mogul. His employees tore down the abandoned houses, cleared the brush, and started planting trees in neat rows. Those trees will ultimately be sold to nurseries, but they will better serve Detroit’s environment than decaying houses with exposed wiring. The Detroit Water and Sewerage Department has instituted stormwater fees on businesses based on the amount of impervious surface on their land, in the hopes that it will spur them to expand greenspace. Now some parking lot owners are looking to put grass and trees on part of their grounds to reduce the fees they have to pay.
When it comes to preparing for and adapting to climate change, vacant properties could actually be an asset for Detroit. But in many other ways, the city’s abandonment and poverty will make climate disruption harder to deal with. That’s why one of the best ways to protect Detroit from climate change would be to bring back up its population and economic might. But that’s a whole other challenge.