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"Sacrifice zones": Detroiters talk pollution concerns with congressional environment subcommittee

Rep.Rashida Tlaib speaking in front of a group of people
Malak Silmi
Michigan Radio

Democratic representatives held a congressional subcommittee hearing in Detroit Thursday about what they called “sacrifice zones.” That’s their term for areas where Americans feel like their lives are being risked by corporate polluters.

Democratic Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib called out companies that had received violation notices around Detroit.

Robert Shobe lives near one of them, Stellantis. Shobe is disabled and a cancer patient. He testified before the House oversight committee's Subcommittee on Environment, saying that the plant near his house makes him sick.

"When the smell comes down around my house, my eyes burn. I have a cough from smelling the paint. I feel a tightness in my chest. I've gotten headaches from the smell, and I've been living as a prisoner in my own house for well over a year. And it's not just me," Shobe said.

A Stellantis official said in an email that the company monitors air quality, and its tests have continually shown that there are no health risks to residents in the area.

The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center says, people of color — like Shode — are disproportionately likely to live close to a hazardous facility.

Democratic Representative Debbie Dingell, who was at the event but is not on the environment subcommittee, said dangerous environmental hazards happen too often.

"Just look at the number of chemical spills that have been in my district alone this year. The Flat Rock Spill and then a second Flat Rock Spill. The horrific spill in the Huron River by Tribar, which is why we can't eat fish in the Huron River right now," she said.

In a press release, the subcommittee described the hearing as an opportunity for its members "to examine reforms that are necessary to protect frontline communities from pollution and prevent corporate polluters from incorporating permit violation penalties into their bottom lines as the cost of doing business."

Tlaib said the effects of pollution are not distributed equally in the population.

"Our current environmental permitting and enforcement systems are sacrificing black, brown and immigrant and low income communities, working class communities, for profits of corporate polluters. We have an urgent moral duty, y'all, to build new systems and structures that put our health and environment first," Tlaib said.

The hearing, which was held at Wayne County Community College in Detroit, was streamed on Youtube:

Briana Rice is Michigan Public's criminal justice reporter. She's focused on what Detroiters need to feel safe and whether they're getting it.
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