The Stellantis plant on Detroit’s east side.
The Stellantis plant on Detroit’s east side. Credit: Nick Hagen. / Planet Detroit

This article is co-published by the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit with support from the Race and Justice Reporting Initiative at the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University. 

While electric vehicles are better for the environment, the plants that produce them might not be. A new report wants everyone — especially automakers and policymakers — to think about how the production of “green” cars can still be harmful to disadvantaged communities.

The report — Driving Toward Environmental Justice & Health: Challenges, Opportunities & Tools for an Equitable Electric Vehicle (eV) Transition — is led by the consulting firm Empowering a Green Environment and Economy (EGE2). EGE2’s mission is to “work with institutions that make decisions impacting communities of color by helping them collect data to make the best decisions that aren’t harming these communities that are often dealing with political injustices,” according to the firm’s founder, Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome.  

Aligning with the timing of Stellantis’ plant expansion on Detroit’s east side to produce low-emission Jeep vehicles and GM’s announcement of the reopening of their Hamtramck plant — now Factory Zero — for electric vehicle production, the report highlights best practices for leaders to implement in neighborhoods that have and continue to bear the costs of vehicle production in their backyards. 

Uncovering the historical injustice of the auto manufacturing industry, examining current issues within the sector, incorporating studies and lessons learned from other regions experiencing environmental injustice, and looking ahead at strategies to be implemented by automakers and leaders as they move toward a greener approach, White-Newsome was hoping to capture the “intersection of environmental health and justice in the manufacturing sector within the [electric vehicle] transition,” she said. 

While the study focuses on various areas within the Midwest region, it especially highlights Stellantis and the impact the facility has on its surrounding community. 

The recent expansion at the Mack Assembly Plant has resulted in the assurance of over 3,000 additional jobs and the production of low-emission vehicles being created. However, since its expansion and involvement in the Detroit Community Benefits Agreement process, residents and others of the impacted area question who the transition truly benefits. 

“Yes, it’s about jobs, but it’s also about making sure that the physical environment, and the people that have to live in that environment, aren’t getting worse off after this transition,” White-Newsome said. 

While Stellantis has pledged $1 million in neighborhood projects such as stormwater management and pollinator gardens, neighbors say the project ignores the more pressing issue of air pollution

The auto plant has received numerous air quality violation notices recently, with residents complaining of a bad odor in the surrounding community. Following the violations, the state launched a new website tracking air quality issues from Stellantis plants across Michigan.

Emissions from manufacturing plants are inevitable, even when transitioning to electric vehicle production. White-Newsome and her team wanted to explore best practices for alleviating this harm as much as possible. The report suggests tools such as the Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening Tool (EJSCREEN) for preliminary impact analysis while also suggesting more inclusive participation that centers the voices of the impacted community. 

The consulting firm interviewed leaders and those within the impacted area of auto manufacturing facilities as a way to effectively gather qualitative data to support their research. 

“We’ve been dealing with dust and health issues for the last three years and now we are dealing with unseen stuff. Nobody can tell us exactly what we are breathing. … it’s a joke,” resident Robert Shobe said. 

Overall, White-Newsome said, it isn’t enough for automakers to declare a greener approach through increased electric vehicle production. It’ll take more consideration for a people-centered approach in production efforts and, even further, a transition from coal-powered plants. 

“Until we begin to change the source of our energy, the benefits that could come from electric vehicles might not be truly realized, particularly for communities that are living near and on the fenceline of the coal production plants,” White-Newsome said. 

The report ends with recommendations for policy change with scopes including transparency, community benefits agreements, and equitable EV incentive programs. 

In addition to the report, White-Newsome urged the examination of battery production and the communities that are impacted by it and its disposal.  

“The way we extract the materials to build these batteries is something that we need to begin to question, and then also where the batteries will end up,” she said. “As we think about the batteries once they’re no longer usable and where that waste usually ends up, which is oftentimes in hazardous waste sites called Superfund sites if they’re big enough. Those are usually, again, located in low-income communities and communities of color.”

While the world is making progress to fight climate change while simultaneously still fighting for human rights, White-Newsome said the report shows there is work that’s still needed to be done. 

“That’s why this report emphasizes the baseline environmental concerns that exist in these communities.”

Editor’s note: This article has been updated to fix incorrect references to Dr. Jalonne White-Newsome’s last name.

Rukiya is a native Detroiter and a co-founder of the Eastside Solutionaries Collective. She was a 2021 reporting fellow for the Energy News Network and Planet Detroit.