Detroit is a city in deep, deep trouble.  It’s everywhere: blighted buildings downtown, crime and high unemployment, auto industry in a tail spin – you name it – it is depressing.

With all this going on, it’s not hard to miss the plight of 10,000 families in Southwest Detroit, where neighborhoods are squeezed in between huge rusting industries, freeways and bridges.  For decades these folks have cried out for a halt to more and more industrial pollution as they witness more and more residents becoming ill and dying at an alarming rate from cancer, lung disease and heart conditions.

But those cries have gone unheeded by City and State officials, who have maintained that everything is okay because the plants are in “compliance” with their air permits that regulate pollution.  Well, that causes the Air Hugger to pause and contemplate the compliance mentality of environmental regulators.  What is compliance and how do we measure it?

It seems in Detroit, compliance is really determined by those who control how pollution is measured.  In the US we rely largely upon polluters to measure and truthfully report their own compliance – a fact most people don’t realize until they are caught in a situation like the Southwest Detroit families.  If regulators gets wind of possible failure in this ‘fox guarding the henhouse’ policy, they might pick up the phone or even, once and a while, go see for themselves.  But they still rely largely upon the polluter for information.

For example, as the Air Hugger has pointed out before, air pollution complaint staff in areas like Detroit carry no air testing equipment other than their noses.  And the state air agency doesn’t require the placement of stationary air monitors at the fenceline between industry and neighbors, so when an errant factory tosses toxic garbage over the fence into the community – there’s no proof it happened.  That’s why in places like Southwest Detroit, being in compliance is a piece of cake for noxious polluters.

But residents are fighting back now, carrying their own air monitors and catching the trash industry is heaping over the fence.  Local “Bucket Brigade” members trained by GCM have busted a local steel mill for releasing into the air lead laden dust that is coating the community on a daily basis. Communities have developed methods to monitor pollution coming from facilities and are gathering more meaningful data than regulators or polluters.

And residents are bringing regulators into their polluted neighborhoods to use air sampling data to prove that being in “compliance” is not enough to protect the health of residents and, in some cases, completely misses the mark. On April 16, 2010, residents of SW Detroit and Rhonda Anderson of the Detroit Environmental Justice Office led Alan Walts and other senior Region 5 EPA officials on a Toxic Tour of  the area.  Aided by real time monitors by Picarro and Argos Scientific companies (which reveal toxic pollution as it happens), EPA officials were able to see via Google Earth huge spikes of air pollution as it cascaded over industrial fencelines and into nearby neighborhoods.  Later that night more than 200 people jammed a local church to see the results as well.  The large crowd let out a collective gasp when they saw their community surrounded by spikes of toxic releases.

This is the same community where regulators are saying that everything is okay because polluters are in compliance.

Residents are now demanding that EPA and state officials start measuring compliance using high tech equipment and community Bucket Brigade tests, not just limited self-reporting by industry.  They are tired of being told that everyone is in compliance, when injustice is so blatant.  They’ve realized that if compliance is measured by polluters, the result will continue to kill them.