Lynn Henning (left) is a farmer whose family grows corn and soy on 300 acres in Hudson, Mich. She is an organizer with the Sierra Club’s Water Sentinels program, testing local rivers and creeks for contamination from factory farms.

Rhonda Anderson (right) is a single mother and longtime community activist in Detroit. She is an environmental-justice organizer for the Sierra Club.

Saturday, 5 Nov 2005

Detroit and Hudson, Mich.

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What could a white farmer from rural Michigan possibly have in common with a black inner-city resident of Detroit? We think the answer begins with two words: environmental justice.

For years, the two of us have worked for the Sierra Club in very different communities. At first glance, it would seem that the groups we work with have little in common — on the one side, family farmers who are fighting the massive CAFOs (concentrated animal-feeding operations) that have turned the countryside into pits of untreated animal waste; on the other side, African-American residents living near Detroit’s only oil refinery, an area that has been dubbed Detroit’s “Cancer Alley.” Urban vs. rural, black vs. white, liberal “blue” vs. conservative “red” — it seems that all of the categories you can think of would place us at the opposite ends of the spectrum.

And yet, when the two of us first met in the halls of the Michigan statehouse, we were both there to lobby about one thing: environmental justice. And the more we talked about our struggles, the more surprised we were to find how similar they are.

Our communities are only an hour and a half away from each other, but they might as well be different countries. No one from Detroit ever goes to Hudson, Mich., and most Hudson residents have never even interacted with an African-American person from the city. So we decided to organize a tour — which we called the “Common Justice Tour” — so that our groups could meet and see with their own eyes what it was like to live on the other side.

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Think of it as a school exchange program, except the “school” is a different community of pissed-off neighbors whose backyard is also being treated like a dumping ground by powerful people. You don’t have to learn a new language to visit the next county over, but in a state as segregated as Michigan, you do go through a sort of culture shock.

So we rented a bus and planned a day-long tour that would pick up the residents of Detroit and bring them to Hudson, then trade places and bring the Hudson folks into Detroit.

Here are some of our impressions and thoughts from the trip.

We were passing by the Vreba-Hoff Dairy operation when Robert Jackson, one of the folks from Detroit, yelled out from the back of the bus, “I thought we were coming to the country. Where are all the birds at?”

Well, we don’t have many birds left around here. What we do have is a nasty stench from the untreated animal waste that they spray all over the ground. In terms of wildlife, we have sick coyotes and raccoons who just sit in the road. On days when they dump animal carcasses, we have hundreds of vultures that circle. And a lot of the trees that line the road are dead.

Lillian Leonard looks at untreated animal waste being discharged into a creek in Hudson, Mich.

Dolores Leonard, one of the women from Detroit, told me that she has been to Africa and China, but she has never been to Hudson. I wanted to help bring them out here so they can see what we are going through. My husband and I are farmers, and our family has been on this land for four generations. Now, our house is surrounded by 12 industrial dairies that spread untreated animal feces and urine all over the fields, and the emissions get so bad we can’t even go outside or open our windows. People think, “oh, manure is good for the plants,” but they don’t understand: this is no longer manure — it contains chemicals, growth hormones, antibiotics, milk-house waste, and silage leachate. And we’re talking about massive quantities of waste — thousands and thousands of gallons daily, more than the amount produced by a small city — and more than enough to run off the fields and through the tile piping systems that discharge right into lakes, streams, and rivers.

Ever since I started speaking up against the CAFOs, I’ve had to deal with harassment from the companies. We’ve had dead animals in our mailbox. We’ve been chased by semis, had them come after us trying to play chicken on the dirt road. We’ve dealt with combine damage.

Many of the homes have dropped in value, but most of the homes around these facilities have been sold or abandoned.

I’m pretty tough, but I have to admit I was nervous about going into the city after we finished the Hudson part of the tour. I have lived in Michigan my whole life, but I’ve only been to Detroit twice, and never to the places we visited today. I’m a country girl, and I never quite feel right in the city, but when I saw the factories I told Rhonda, they’re all CAFOs to me. Whether it’s a tile or a pipe that takes the animal feces and urine right into the creek, or the Marathon oil refinery dumping stuff into the river, they’re all the same — they’re dumping, and some community is going to have to deal with the mess. I can’t believe our government would allow companies to build factories on the river like that, knowing it’s people’s drinking water. You must have a healthy, sustainable environment to work and live or there won’t be a sustainable community with jobs for tomorrow.

When I first saw the CAFOs spraying all that sewage, I just couldn’t believe it. It may look like a different thing out here in the country, but really we’re dealing with the same situation. It isn’t agriculture; it’s dumping. The thing that struck me was when we got to the place where the pavement ended, and we’re there on dirt roads with all these empty houses where people have been forced to move out from the pollution.

Lynn kept talking about how our government subsidizes these big animal factories, so we are basically paying for them to pollute the land and cause the community to deteriorate, just like in Detroit. It’s kind of like they are on welfare, but you never hear anyone refer to it that way. Two of the biggest polluting facilities were flying another flag next to the American flag, and Lynn told us it was a Dutch flag since the CAFO owners are from the Netherlands. They moved here because environmental laws are a lot weaker here than they are at home. To me, that’s no different than a foreign oil company making money off my community in Detroit while our neighbors are stuck dealing with the consequences. I’m sick and tired of the powers that be taking advantage of communities, sucking away the resources and leaving the local people with nothing. There has to be a better way to do this so that kids’ health isn’t being put at risk and the money isn’t all going outside of our communities.

Anne Woiwode checks out the Marathon oil refinery in Detroit.

I’ve lived in the city my whole life, and I think if I had driven through Hudson on my own, it would have just looked like a pretty rural scene. I wouldn’t even have realized what I was looking at if I didn’t see this tour through Lynn’s eyes. Now I realize that the creeks I am passing are contaminated, and those brown fields used to be green. I realized the problems of industrial pollution aren’t just limited to Detroit — agriculture is industrial too and can have all of the same problems if people don’t treat the earth and the community with respect.

All in all, I thought the tour was extremely successful. You have to put it in perspective — we are not going to dismantle years of racism and segregation and fear and environmental injustice in a day. But for me, to even get these people talking to each other is a huge step. One of the best moments for me was when Dean, a white farmer from Hudson, was sitting up front next to the bus driver from Detroit and giving him directions around Hudson. The two of them were talking and laughing, and every time I looked at them, I just smiled to myself. It was something about the simpleness of these two people who never would have met and are from such different areas, but who began to open up to each other and help each other out.

We wrapped up the day with a discussion in a local church here in Detroit, and we left with some ideas for concrete actions that we are going to take together — like a joint lobby day for our two communities to go together to our public officials to talk about these issues. I think it’s going to be very powerful when a white farmer is accompanying a black community leader into a meeting with a legislator to say, “Their issues are our issues too, and we’re going to keep coming back here with them until you start listening to the people instead of the polluters.”

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