Detroit was Killed by Decades of Environmental Abuse

Detroit environmental abuse: a cities left in ruins - socially, economically, and environmentallyThe findings in this post-mortem of Detroit suggest that the city was killed by environmental abuse compounded by the failure to adapt to a changing economic landscape. Understanding the fall of Michigan’s largest city has important implications for cities across America and around the world.

With a population of more than 700,000 people, Detroit is now the largest U.S. municipality to file for bankruptcy. Detroit’s seeming obliviousness to changing economic realities and history of environmental neglect have made the city unsafe. This has crushed the local economy and contributed to one of the highest unemployment rates in the country.

Although the city recently adopted an ambitious sustainability strategy, it was too late to save the city from decades of ecological insanity.

Detroit environmental abuse

One argument explaining the demise of Detroit is that the city fell prey to rampant pollution and monumental environmental shortsightedness. In April 2013, the Sierra Club Detroit released a report that reviewed the city’s environmental abuse.  The report concluded that more than most communities in Michigan, metro Detroit’s proximity to industrial pollution is an “environmental injustice” that constitutes “human rights abuse.”

According to the Sierra Club assessment, the levels of contamination in Detroit are the cause of inordinately higher levels of asthma, cancer, neurological disorders and birth defects. The report cites statistics from the Michigan Department of Community Health that show that Detroit adults suffer from asthma 50 percent more than the state of Michigan as a whole.

Pollution comes from a wide range of nearby industries including auto plants, steel mills, an oil refinery, a wastewater treatment plant and others. Some of the worst sources of pollution were identified as Severstal Steel plant, DTE Energy’s coal-fired River Rouge power plant, Marathon’s oil sands refinery; EES Coke and Battery

Detroit Renewable Power is one of the nation’s largest solid waste incinerators. The facility is the fourth-largest producer of nitrous oxide emissions in the state, which according to studies, affect people’s nervous, cardiovascular and reproductive systems.

The Great Lakes Works, a U.S. Steel facility, released more than 10.1 million pounds of toxic substances in 2010, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The Sierra Club’s study notes that manganese levels at the site were found to exceed residential particulate inhalation standards set by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Detroit Wastewater Treatment Facility is the largest source of discharge into the river with 47 billion gallons of diluted raw sewage released during combined sewer overflows in 2011.

Large corporations have been abusing Detroit’s environment for decades, but one of the city’s most agregious polluters are the Koch Brothers. These two oil barrons are infamous for their three story high pile of petroleum coke in the city near the banks of the Detroit river. The mountain of petroleum coke, a by product of oil production, belongs to Koch Carbon which is owned by David and Charles Koch, the wealthy climate change denying conservative industrialists.

The emissions laden petroleum coke originates from the refining of Canada’s tar sands. The waste byproduct comes from extracting bitumen produced by Marathon oil which as mentioned above, has its own shameful legacy of environmental abuse. The EPA does not allow coke to be burned in the U.S. so it is exported overseas to places like China. There are currently 79.8 million tons of the dirty inefficient fuel stockpiled.

In 2010, residents began complaining of a strong smell coming from their basements and sewers. The fumes were so pervasive that it had discolored painted walls of homes, and prompted the growth of unknown substances on furniture. An examination of the fumes showed twenty different toxic gases emanating from one house while hydrogen-sulfur seeping up from sewers was identified as the main culprit. Marathon Oil hushed up the issue by quietly purchasing thirteen homes in the area.

Detroit and Rouge Rivers

Although we have seen some improvements, decades of environmental abuse to the Detroit’s local waterways have taken their toll. As explained by the EPA, industrial pollution of the Detroit and Rouge Rivers dates back to the end of 19th Century. In the late 1940s, oil pollution started to cause massive winter duck kills. In 1948, the situation climaxed when approximately 11,000 ducks were killed due to oil pollution in the Detroit River.

Even though there were a series of relevant legislative events to address the problem, in 1962, the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare reported that oil slicks were still being reported on the Detroit River one-third of the time during the winter and spring.

An International Joint Commission in 1968 identified other sources of pollution in the Detroit River including municipal wastewater treatment plants, government installations, combined sewer overflows, and shipping.

More recent data collected by the U.S. Coast Guard National Response Center in 2005 indicated that there are still years in which the total volume of oil and other petroleum products spilled in the Detroit and Rouge Rivers is comparable to the estimated oil releases in 1961. Some of the more noteworthy spills include a 100,000 gallon oil spill in the Rouge River in 2002.

Oil pollution continues to be a serious problem because of combined sewer overflow events and industrial releases. Since 1995, up to 40 percent of all the reported oil spills in Michigan occurred in the Detroit and Rouge Rivers.

A sustainable plan for the city

In December 2012, Mayor Dave Bing and the Detroit Works project did make an attempt to address the city’s woeful environmental record. They crafted a 350-page plan known as the “Detroit Future City” report. The 50-year plan includes a number of sustainable ideas like building “blue and green infrastructure” to help address water and air-quality issues, creating new open space networks that incorporate habitat for local wildlife, and diversifying the city’s public transportation modes. The report calls for adding new, large areas of greenspace, but it’s also emphatic about the need to reuse old buildings.

To help finance the plan, the W.K. Kellogg, Kresge, and Ford Foundations collectively pledged millions.

While the Detroit Future City project is laudable, it was far too late to save the city.


The absence of transparency in Detroit has been put forth as a reason contributing to the city’s demise. The issue of transparency is central to sustainability and across the nation and around the world transparency, is being advanced as a bulwark against environmental abuse.

Despite concerns and reservations, businesses are embracing transparency acknowledging that this is the only way forward. At the municipal level, transparency in decision-making processes is fast becoming a central strategy for engaging stakeholders, combating corruption and improving the quality of urban governance overall.

Transparency supports sustainability and good governance. There is no denying that Detroit municipal democracy and local sustainability initiatives could have been improved by a framework that encourages greater transparency.

It is important to have access to public records if for no other reason than to hold accountable those in power. Although local media have been reporting on Detroit, many question the public’s access to information in the lead up to the city’s filing for bankruptcy.

While greater municipal transparency may have helped, it is unlikely that it could have saved the city on its own.

Demographic data

Demographic data is one of the keys to understanding Detroit’s decline. In 1960, Detroit was the richest per capita city in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Now, 60 percent of all of Detroit’s children are living in poverty. Almost half of the city’s population are functionally illiterate, a third of Detroit’s 140 square miles are vacant or derelict, and almost one fifth are unemployed.

The city’s unemployment rate has nearly tripled since 2000 and the city’s homicide rate is at the highest level in nearly 40 years. The FBI considers Detroit to be one of the most dangerous cities in America.

In the 1950s, there were more than 1.85 million people in the city, now there are only 706,000 people. Over the last 13 years alone, Detroit’s population has plummeted more than 25 percent.

U.S. 2010 Census data notes that Michigan lost almost half (48%) of all its manufacturing jobs from 2000-2010. This includes high-skill, high-paying manufacturing and industrial jobs, many of which were in the auto industry. In 1970, the EPA was created and the city did not develop a strategic plan to transition to more environmentally responsible manufacturing. Nor did they have a plan to source sustainable energy supplies upon which heavy industry depends.

The auto industry

The fall of the American auto industry was a central factor in Detroit’s demise. The city’s big automakers were beholden to a business model that was way out of step with a changing world.  From this perspective, Detroit was a casualty of the changing global reality and the resultant economic paradigm shift. The Michigan based auto industry did not adjust as demand waned for the wasteful gas guzzling behemoths that defined Detroit in its heyday.

As explained in a Forbes article:

“American carmakers are best at producing muscular, noisy, gas guzzling rides (think GM’s Suburban, Cadillac and Corvette, Ford’s Bronco and Lincoln lines)….the biggest factor [for the demise of Detroit] has to do with the quality of American cars…Put simply, Michigan and its city most known for the rise of the automobile clung to a business – car manufacturing – that was long ago rendered yesterday’s commercial news.”

Part of the reason that Detroit declared bankruptcy can be attributed to the demise of the old auto industry that was the lifeblood of the city. Big auto’s failure to anticipate and respond to economic and environmental concerns helped to divest the city of its tax base and push Detroit into bankruptcy.

The fall of great cities in history

Like Detroit, other cities have fallen due to their unresponsiveness to changing realities. Wanton pollution and unbridled exploitation of resources made Detroit a textbook recipe for decline. Detroit seemed oblivious to the need to develop new business models designed to address growing resource scarcity and climate-change-causing emissions.

Throughout history, once great civilizations have perished due to their failure to adapt. During the golden age of Mayan civilization (250 AD to 900 AD), there were more than 15 million people living in 40 cities. These were some of the most advanced city states in the world at that time. However, like many other technologically advanced civilizations these cities came to an abrupt end.

According to one theory, the Mayans were the victims of their own success. Over-farming to feed growing populations combined with drought and cultural upheavals may have caused the Mayan decline.

Some researchers have suggested that climate change caused Mayan cities to fall. Climate change has also been a predominant theory put forth to explain the abandonment of Cambodia’s ancient city of Angkor as well as the decline and fall of Roman civilization.

What we must learn

There is much we all can learn from Detroit; the fate of the city is a cautionary tale that we all would be well advised to heed. This is not just a theoretical concern for the distant future, climate change is an existential threat faced by many cities today. According to a PNAS study published at the end of July, within a decade, more than 1,300 U.S. cities and towns and ultimately a quarter of Americans could be submerged under water due to climate change.

We cannot afford to ignore the environment and the changing climate. Failure to curtail adverse ecological impacts imperils more than our cities, it is a threat to civilization itself.

We are all called to do what we can in terms of mitigation, however, for many of the impacts of climate change, it is already too late. Like Detroit, we are faced with a stark choice, either adapt or die.

Read more about the social impacts of climate change

Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, green investor and author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, eco-economics and enviro-politics. He is the owner of The Green Market Oracle, a leading sustainable business site and one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. Find The Green Market on Facebook and follow The Green Market’s twitter feed.

Image credit: Don Harder, courtesy flickr

Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews
Richard Matthews is a consultant, eco-entrepreneur, sustainable investor, and writer. He is the owner of THE GREEN MARKET, one of the Web’s most comprehensive resources on the business of the environment. He is also the author of numerous articles on sustainable positioning, green investing, enviro-politics, and eco-economics.

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  1. Richard, I think that you are correct: “Understanding the fall of Michigan’s largest city has important implications for cities across America and around the world.”

    The 21st century will overturn many of our previously-held assumptions about civilization. The challenges and opportunities land development stakeholders now face – to fulfill the needs of society and achieve a favorable return on investment without harming the environment – have vast implications on the sustainability of our communities around the world.

    Quest begins to restore ‘champion’ trees by cloning – “…the group has found what it considers an ideal location for a first attempt at planting thousands of champion clones: the Rouge River watershed, which covers 438 square miles in southeastern Michigan.”

    Sustainable Land Development Initiative

  2. This is really RUBBISH! Detroit may well have been an environmentally irresponsible city but to suggest that this is the cause of its decline and bankruptcy is the sort of activist hyperbole that gets responsible environmentalism a bad name – and deservedly so. The likelihood is that Detroit was no more environmentally irresponsible than any other major American industrial city in the latter half of the twentieth century.

    Those of us who lived in the UK in the 60s watched as the British motor industry, shipbuilding and steel making collapsed as cheap labor and technological progress in Japan, Taiwan and other emerging economies enabled them to out-compete companies that had ruled the manufacturing world for decades in those industries. The population of cities like Manchester, Liverpool and Sheffield declined sharply as their industrial base withered. The same process has overtaken many once-proud US manufacturing companies, including the motor industry that was the backbone of Detroit’s economy.

    Was the leadership of that industry as good as it might have been? Probably not – although it’s interesting to see that it is once again prospering with a small fraction of the number of employees it had 40-50 years ago. Was the city’s leadership sound? Of course not – it suffered from the same disease that is endemic in American politics – it’s called kicking the can down the road.

    What we need in the environmental and sustainability movement is a little less of this type of jingoism and a little more focus on how we can develop business practices that are at once responsible both socially and environmentally and highly profitable.

  3. Right on Graham!!! Rubbish.
    Blame the corruption and Union deals for killing this once great City. The union deals are killing cities, countys, state governements across the country with the unsustainable contracts they are getting. The cities with enough tax payers to cover these deals are still hanging on the others are dieing quickly.

    • I share your concern with corruption and I address the issue in the section on transparency. I also share your concerns about union demands detracting from the viability of some industries. However, if we want to build a tax base we need to provide an environment in which people want to live. This is about far more than simple economics.

      In Detroit there were important social factors at play, as I explore in a recent article, environmental problems/climate change have been clearly demonstrated to exacerbate social tensions and cause conflict.

  4. Of course you are free to express your opinions Graham, but I would ask you to consider the facts presented in the article. In response to your statement that Detroit was no worse than other cities on the environmental front, I think the data shows that you are wrong. As revealed by the Sierra club’s expose, rates of asthma and other health problems are far worse in Detroit.

    A central part of my thesis is that Detroit’s car industry produced some of the world’s least sustainable vehicles. This is a salient economic variable that contributed to Detroit’s demise. Ask yourself the following question, if Detroit was making more environmentally responsible vehicles, would they have lost the same magnitude of market share?

    My point is illustrated by the revival of a small portion of Detroit’s auto industry, which is due in part to greater sustainability being practiced by the auto giants as well as the production of more environmentally responsible vehicles.

    As a consultant I spend the bulk of my time on real world issues related to helping businesses be more environmentally and socially responsible, as well as profitable.

    However, we will never get to where we need to be, without understanding the errors of the past. As I say in my article, Detroit of yesteryear is a cautionary tale that all cities would do well to avoid.

  5. Detroit tried to make environmentally responsible cars going all the way back to the Pinto. The problem was they were not good at it. The cars had problems and they could not compete with the foreign car manufacturers. Some of these issues, not all of them, can be attributed to union issues. Cost is definitely a union related issue and quality as well, design probably not.

  6. The environmental story is all true, but it’s not the cause, just a symptom.

    The Detroit we see today was designed and run by white guys in white shirts and ties, commuting in from Bloomfield Hills and Grosse Pointe. Just as with the Vietnam War, you could smell the defeat coming even in the 60’s, as the city’s layout completely lacks density and thus flexibility. It could only function with this design for a short time – while the spread-out citizens all had auto industry jobs.

    Historically, it’s facscinating, because now it’s a petri dish for creative ideas. But none of them will come from the guys still running the show. The cool ideas are all coming from the ground up – new Henry Fords if you will.

  7. No chance you could advise me of your references. I am keen to use this as a casestudy for a masters thesis which will be published later this year.



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