Trucks, ports and pollution in Southwest DetroitQ&A with Raquel Garcia: Nonprofit Journal Project

Raquel Garcia is the executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision. In that role, she leads SDEV’s community engagement work, organizing residents around environmental quality issues in Southwest Detroit.

Tell me about some of SDEV’s achievements in Southwest around reducing pollution and emissions.

We’ve been doing this work since 2014 and have been talking about emissions and truck traffic for a really long time. When it comes to talk of truck routes I feel like we have moved the needle. It seems so foreign to people to think about how trucks move through a neighborhood, and it now has a lot of folks talking about it. We have reduced emissions by tonnage, and have helped partners buy trucks that allow them to decommission older, more polluting trucks, and we can quantify how much pollution it saves.

We have signed up at least 15 businesses to do building energy assessments. Our partner Detroit 2030 has found that increased efficiency by 15 percent, which saves $60,000 per year. We are now part of the groups working on the Detroit/Wayne County port decarbonization plan. We are really excited to learn more and get residents to talk about the ports.

Why is Southwest Detroit particularly vulnerable to issues with air quality?

We are going to be bookended by two bridges. There are 10,000 trucks that cross the Ambassador Bridge daily, and I assume there will be that much or more on the new one. The truck companies have businesses in residential areas so it’s not that the trucks are on the highway, they are going through the neighborhoods. It’s a highly desirable place for truck terminals to look for land, and our zoning hasn’t caught up to the evolution of what is happening in the city. We have at least 10 major sources of industrial activity from a refinery to steel mills, and now the Detroit Intermodal Transit facility. We don’t have cumulative impact legislation so if you have a trucking company and I have a company and we’re all under the limit (of 10 trucks per site), together we are not under the limit. The zoning code doesn’t spell out the total numbers of trucks in an area or limit how they access the property.

What is Green Ports, and how does it address environmental issues at the Port of Detroit?

Last year Senator Stephanie Chang opened an office for our ports, and then they were able to do an emissions assessment. There’s not a lot of language that helps us understand what businesses are doing up and down the river. Emissions is not one of the things that needs to be reported in Wayne County. We are going to have discussions with private and public port operators and begin to understand what each entity is doing. We are going to create a menu of suggestions such as switching to biodiesel, and begin having a good discussion.

How do you work to engage the community in your healthy air work? Why is that important?

The minute you focus on engagement you realize you can never do enough. No matter how much we work on that, there are always folks that you miss, and we’re always striving to learn more about what people are experiencing. We can’t tell people’s stories -- we really want them to tell their own stories and bring them to decision makers. We are constantly knocking on doors letting people know what we’re seeing and asking what they are seeing. People are looking for ways to engage.

What is something you are hoping to accomplish in the next year?

We’re really looking to grow the work in some new ways, and one way we’re are doing that is collaboration. I am excited about how much work we are doing with other people. There is going to be a lot coming down the pike on infrastructure, but that still isn’t going to reach a lot of people. We want to do more green alleys and permeable surfaces in our community. We get a lot of flooding, and we need to talk to people about ways to alleviate that. Every time there is a new flat, paved surface and they put trucks on it, there’s more water in the streets.

We have to say, “Hey, city of Detroit, make people add water features when they open a new truck business.” All of that is connected, and all of these problems create opportunities for civic engagement with lawmakers. We are excited about this sort of connected activity around permeable surfaces and zoning.

Lastly, in terms of what we’re hoping to accomplish, being part of the engagement team for the Green Ports project – we want people to not feel left out even if they don’t go to a meeting.

This entry is part of our Nonprofit Journal Project, an initiative inviting nonprofit leaders across Metro Detroit to contribute their thoughts via journal entries on how COVID-19, a heightened awareness of racial injustice and inequality, issues of climate change, and more are affecting their work--and how they are responding. This series is made possible with the generous support of our partners, the Michigan Nonprofit Association and Co.act Detroit.
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