Warren County 2.0: The Unequal Hazardous Waste Distribution In Northeast Detroit

by Jui-Cheng Ryan Wu

Site Description:

Since the mid-19th century, Detroit has been a center of industries and commerce of Michigan, it’s significance especially escalated as the Automobile industry took off in the 1910s. Environmental contamination comes with the thriving industries continuing to the current era. One shocking news in January of 2020 catches the attention of the less wealthy societies, as the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) approved U.S. Ecology’s permit to increase its storage of toxic waste nine folds. In detail, The plant has permission to treat 144,000 gallons of toxic and industrial chemicals per day, including arsenic, cyanide, mercury, PCBs, and PFAS, that are dumped into the city’s sewer system. It soon raises the attention of the public on environmental racism. According to the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, 65% of people living within three miles of a commercial hazardous waste site in Michigan are people of color, despite being only 25% of the state’s population; and the lack of representation of the local community give manufacturers an easy pass for disposal. Activists on environmental justice joined with locals and quickly started the negotiation with the EGLE. As this is still an ongoing crisis. I would like to look into the inequality of power behind the scene, and what resisting action has been taken that gives pressure to the officials especially in this case. Since environmental injustice is not a new subject for the area, I also want to understand what the local organizations have done addressing the inequality before this clash. The outcome could serve as a reference for the people across the States that are urgently facing similar environmental problems.

Author Biography:

I am Jui-Cheng Ryan Wu, a fifth year student in NJIT school of architecture. I spent the past several years living in Newark, witnessing the local residents fighting back against environmental injustice cases such as the Passaic Superfund Site and the Led water crisis. It raises my interest in Knowing more about the city of Detroit, a place that I have been hearing of since little, desperately facing all kinds of side effects brought by the rise and fall of its heavy industries.

Final Report:

Primary Sources:

NOTICE OF FINAL DECISION: Approval of Hazardous Waste Management Facility Operating License US Ecology, Inc., Detroit North MID 074 259 565

This is the original document (Notice) from EGLE, regarding the expansion permission of US Ecology Detroit North plant, on January 29th, 2020.  It includes details of US Ecology’s responsibility and requirements. Some frequently asked questions are attached with answers in this document too. This document is a reliable primary resource that explains the whole event, the changes made with this permission, and some general background information.



This is the official website of the environmental justice coalition about our site, which includes all the updates and record of actions in either writing or imaging formats. The website also includes a lot of references in scientific studies on its resource page. This is a valuable and reliable primary source to keep track of the opponents in this environmental justice event.

Detroit Worker’s Voice, calling the society to stop US Ecology’s expansion permission

This is a document/poster on the early action against the expansion of the US Ecology Detroit North site, confusingly from the Detroit Workers’ Voice (Detroit Marxist-Leninist study group). They were calling for a march on April 16th, 2016, to oppose the expansion proposal of the US Ecology. This poster cited many sources from the Coalition’s website, and even included their website at the very bottom. From this source, we could probably specify more on the background of the opponent of this Coalition.

Expansion of Hazardous Waste Plant in Detroit Smacks of ‘Environmental Racism,’ Rep. Robinson Says. Detroit Metro Times. 1/31/2020


This is a news report on the day after the capacity expansion of the US Ecology Detroit North plant was permitted. It portrays the reaction of the locals toward this issue. This primary source could provide us a glance about the atmosphere of the community at that time.

Groups Urge Protection From Environmental Racism in Hazardous Waste Placement. The Detroit News. 8/3/2020


This is a report of the action these locals and the environmental activists do at the moment to try to push back the decision. The second half of the news report also included their point of view and some existing conditions at the time that they think are totally unfair which needed to be changed.


(Source 1) This source is a new york times article written during the time of the cleanup and it details interactions with Glen ridge citizens through interviews of homeowners both new and old. The point of this article is to show that citizens of Glen Ridge were largely unaware of the fact that there was any sort of danger posed to them.

The author achieves this goal from interviews. Firstly, “But in Glen Ridge, you could spend all day walking around the 90-acre site — this utterly typical neighborhood of 1930’s houses on shady streets, of flower gardens and jungle gyms and dogs — and never guess the source of the contamination” provides a juxtaposition of the idyllic suburb with the level of contamination, and also highlights how unapparent the danger is. “And there, in the box, was a letter from the E.P.A. Suddenly they understood why they got such a great price on the house. They tried to see if they could stop the deal, but it was too late. The lawyers were all gone and the seller was driving to Arizona” is a summary of a story told in an interview from a resident which gives insight into how some residents came to be aware of the issue on moving in and further shows how hidden they tried to keep the issue. “We got a notice in the mail from the E.P.A. about a meeting,” said Mr. Bergmanson. ”It said something like, ‘As you know, you are part of a Superfund site radium cleanup . . . .’ And we were like, ‘What the heck is this?” is a quote from an interview with another glen ridge resident and shows further how unaware people were of the danger that they were living on top of.

      Secondary Sources:

        Environmental Justice in Detroit: A Comparison with the Civil Rights Movement: https://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/112069/THESIS.pdf?sequence=1&isAllowed=y

        This is a 90 page study on the environmental justice movements, about its history, theory, and its comparison with the human right movement. Done by Mary Hennessey, from University of Michigan. There are 20 pages (p39-58) in chapter 5 that focuses on the environmental justice movement in the Detroit area, which would provide us clear context of the history and examples of Detroit locals defending their homeland from further contamination. Even though it did not directly address our site in Northeast Detroit near the Hamtramck border, it would still provide us the background of the activists’ action in this area with the several precedents it includes.

        US ecology Detroit North summary from Michigan Government 

        US ecology Detroit North FAQ from Michigan Government 

        These two above are the information and the FAQ regarding the US Ecology Detroit North Plant, done by the Michigan Government. It provides information on the history of the site, types of hazardous waste it processes in detail, and legal ways for the local residents to act against the treatment plant expansion. 

        US Ecology’s Permit Violations Anger Detroit Neighbors. Detroit Free Press. 2016


        This report in 2016 discovered the facility on our site exceeded allowable discharge limits more than 150 times between 2010 and 2016. Mercury, arsenic, and cyanide were among those chemicals being released into the city sewer system at levels above the maximum limit”. This is a source that can provide us a clear image of how the US Ecology Detroit North plant is threatening the health of nearby residents, contaminating the local environment. This is also one of the earliest news reports that reveals the proposal of US Ecology that tried to expand this treatment plant’s capacity.

        Image Analysis:

        FOCAL POINT: Write down and describe the first site in the image where your eyes are drawn to.

        I first saw the mid-age caucasian guy at the center with a black suit. He locked his arms with his two fellas on his left and right, seemingly like the leader of the activity. Even though he is wearing a nice looking suit, what is being worn inside is just a polo shirt that does not fit that well with its exterior, which indicates that he is probably not in the elite level that cares a lot on their outfit, but more of an unprivileged civilian. 

        DIRECTION OF MOVEMENT WITHIN THE PICTURE FRAME: Note where your eyes are drawn to next, traveling from one place to another across the image. See if you can create a narrative from the string of visual scenes and relationships among component parts. What might the progression of visual elements mean?

        Then my attention is moved to the two people by his side. The one on the front left of the photo is an African American, presumably at around the age of 30 by looking at his skin smoothness. He is wearing a very casual white shirt inside a down jacket, this outfit is like a normal pedestrian. This might indicate that the young locals did care about this environmental justice movement and participated themself to this event. The other guy who locked his arm with the mid-age caucasian looks like a elderly muslim from the Middle east, he is wearing traditional style cloths and hat to attend this event. This gives a hint on the ethnical formation of the local population, as the three main characters in this photo are three distinctive races. Then my attention moved to the surrounding environment. There are some shipping containers in the far background, which suggests that this area is more industrialized and harsher than the average neighborhood as there are no greeneries in the frame.

        SPATIAL RELATIONSHIPS: Look to see if there are any spatial divisions in the image that reflect different zones of activity.

        There are two zones in this photograph. This first is the three people in the front that takes over half of the frame, the second zone is the other participants in the background. Because of the angle the picture is taken, we can not clearly identify how many people have actually attended this event; we can only count three people in the background from this limited perspective. One of them is a mid-age Indian who is holding the sign, the other two individuals did not reveal themself enough in this photo to be identified.

        COLOR: Note which features share the same color.  Which ones are brightest, darkest, and dimmest.  Can you make any judgments about these differences, including how the elements may be understood in relation to the others?

        The most vibrant and contrast-rich part of the image is definitely the middle, where the three main characters are. The Sky background is almost overexposed, but also gives a hint of the cloudy days with the soft lighting it projects on these figures evenly. The brightness in this photo did not differentiate any figure significantly more than the others.

        SCALE/SIZE:  Compare the sizes of the various visual elements.  Larger size generally correlates with greater importance.

        Focus is clearly on the three people in the front as they took up about half of the frame. They are much bigger than the people in the background, which suggests that they might be the community leaders of this event or some important figure in this movement. 

        CONTRASTS: Note how some visual elements play off each other. These contrasts serve to accentuate differences and/or exaggerate the separate qualities of each. Conversely, little contrast can communicate likeness or similarity.

        The plain cloudy sky was a pretty good contrast to the mood of the three people in the front, who looked very serious with intense facial expressions. It demonstrated the feeling of these people who are under the pressure of the incoming toxic waste.

        INDIVIDUAL ACTORS & DETAILS: Write down any other details that don’t seem to fit a pattern yet seem important for understanding the image. 

         Everyone looks like they belong to this scene.

        ABSENCES: Can you think of something that is conspicuously missing from the picture?

        There are no females and kids included in this picture, it could just be the perspective of this shot that coincidently excluded these two types of people since this is a protest launched by the local community.

        VALUES & MEANINGS:  List some of the values you think the image maker is expressing through these visual relationships and elements.  Try to state a takeaway message or two that you can then verify with other sources.

        This image clearly portrays the anger and the anxiety of the local Detroiters on the US Ecology expansion. It shows the idea that this threat of environmental pollution really unites the different races living in this community to come together and fight for their own right. On the other hand, it shows the problem of the lack of representation of their voice in the governmental decision making class, which pushes them to go on the street with no other choices.

        WHERE TO GO NEXT: List other sources you can turn to find out more information about the image.

        • The Detroit workers voice
        • US Ecology Detroit North plant 2020 expansion permission

        Data Analysis:

        Oral Interviews:

        Video Story: