Environmental Justice Case Study: The Dearborn, Michigan Arab American Community and Industrial Air Pollution

Table of Contents

The Problem

The atmosphere and environment in Dearborn created by Rouge Steel and other companies has changed in many ways. The plant produces a great deal of toxic waste. Water, land, and air are greatly contaminated by the plant, causing many illnesses within the city of Dearborn (Dorroh, 1995). The plant is a major contributor of pollution in the south end of Dearborn, and the environmental hazards are extremely high.

This industrial pollution in the community is consistent with the concept of environmental racism. Arab Americans living in the south end of Dearborn are disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards. As shown in chart 2 below, some of these chemicals pose serious health risks, including cancer, genetic or chromosomal mutation, reproductive defects, and damage to the nervous systems.

Back to Table of Contents


Dearborn, Michigan has been the center of the automobile industry since Henry Ford devised the assembly line in the early 1900's. In the 1920's, the Ford Rouge Steel Plant was built and soon after began its production of steel. In the years to follow, the industrialization of the South end of Dearborn continued and is still growing. Dearborn is located in Wayne County, which has been found to exceed all other counties in the United States in industrial air emissions of hazardous chemicals. Wayne County is also the leader in industrial air emissions of suspected carcinogens (Hassoun, 1995).

According to the study done by Phylecia Dorroh, of the ACCESS (Arab Community for Economic and Social Services) Environmental Program, there are at least ten carcinogens released into the evironment in Dearborn by local industry. Continued exposure to these carcinogens may cause an increase in illnesses such as leukemia and a variety of cancers. Genetic or chromosomal mutations occur due to the breakdown or mutation of DNA in a sperm or an egg. While no reported substances are yet classified by the EPA as potential genetic mutagens, some are found to cause mutations in animals.

Reproductive defects are caused by several different substances, such as cadmium, lead, manganese, and zinc. All four chemicals contributed to over 67 million pounds of toxic waste produced in Dearborn in 1992 alone. Also, over 10, 000 pounds of lead were released as air emissions by industrial facilities in Dearborn. Chronic exposure may cause a breakdown of the nervous system, Alzheimer's disease, and loss of memory and muscle control (Dorroh, 1995).

Airborne pollutants may fall to the land or water, and may damage the ecological food chain of the area. Those who depend on home gardens, tap water, or fishing for sustenance are directly affected by these toxins. In 1992, Dearborn industries released 20, 660 pounds of toxic waste directly into the Rouge River (Hassoun, 1995). Since the Rouge empties into the Detroit River, surrounding communities are also affected by Dearborn's industrial pollution.

Back to Table of Contents

Key Actors

Rouge Steel

Rouge Steel is the eighth largest steel producer in t he United States. They specialize in producing flat rolled steel which is used to make auto bodies, machinery housing, and many other industrial products (Taylor, 1995).

ACCESS (Arab Community for Economic and Social Services)

ACCESS is a non-profit organization that deals with the concerns and interests of the Arab American community. One major concern of the community is the health and nourishment of its people. In order to maintain a health conscious and informed community, ACCESS has recently developed an effective environmental program. Kathyrn Savoie, the program director, has been involved with the community for several years and is quite knowledgeable of the health problems facing the Arab American community.

Back to Table of Contents


There is an enormous amount of evidence relating the impact of environmental pollution on the community in Dearborn. The south end of Dearborn is predominantly low-income Arab Americans who are directly affected industrial pollution. Both Arab Americans and industrial workers face the greatest health risk. To add to the complexity, it remains difficult to identify the impact of mixed chemicals on the Arab community and workers as a whole.


% of Population

% without H.S. Diploma

% Households Below Poverty Line









American Indian, etc.*




Asian or Pacific Islander








*etc. includes Eskimos or Aleuts

There are 13 facilities in Dearborn, MI, that reported their production of toxic chemicals to the EPA as required by law. The results of these reports are known as the Toxic Release Inventory (TRI) and are public information. The names of the 13 facilities are shown below, with the total toxic chemical production by each facility for 1992. The total toxic waste production by all 13 facilities in 1992 is over 138 million pounds. All of this material was either released into the air, water, land at the facility, or transferred offsite.

Facility Total Waste Production (in pounds)
Automotive Finishes, Inc. 164,892
Double Eagle Steel Coating Company 39,769,000
Ford Motor Co. Dearborn Assembly Plant 110,959
Ford Motor Co. Dearborn Engine Plant 1,265,749
Ford Motor Co. Dearborn Frame Plant 11,123
Ford Motor Co. Dearborn Glass Plant 120,937
Ford Motor Co. Dearborn Stamping Plant 32,095
Ford Motor Co. Dearborn Tool and Die Plant 1,160
Ford Motor Co. Vulcan Forge 1,602
Ford Rouge Power and Utilities Operations 245
Kasle Steel Co. 201,498
MichlinDiazo Products Corp. 315
Rouge Steel Co. 96,688,731
Total Waste Generated (1992) 138,395,306
Total Releases 652,218
Total Transfers 49,581,352

Information provided by Kathryn Savoie, ACCESS Environmental Program Study, Nov. 1995.

Back to Table of Contents


The Environmental Program at ACCESS has been developed to combat the affects of the industrial pollution in Dearborn. As the sole representative for the community, Access has documented the health and mortality rates caused by the industrial pollution. This information is reported in their environmental newsletter and preliminary reports and studies. In 1992, ACCESS received information from the Toxic Release Inventory, (TRI), showing the amounts of toxic waste generated by the thirteen automotive industries in Dearborn (see chart 1). Generated more than 138,395,306 pounds of toxic waste, these industries produced a total of 31 toxic substances which are released in the air, soil, and water. Rouge Steel alone generated more than 90,000,000 pounds of toxic chemicals (Savoie, 1995).

Thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals have been released into the air. These chemicals may by absorbed directly by inhalation or by skin contact. Determining the affects have on the Arab community is difficult for several differenct reasons. Less than half of the population can read and write English (Kulwicki, 1995). This language barrier has posed a struggle in identifying the health status of members in the community. Also, more than one-third of the population lacks health insurance and is unaware of the causes of basic health illnesses (Kulwicki, 1995). Therefore, it is often the case that illnesses go unreported or untreated due to this low-income community's lack of insurance.

ACCESS is currently publishing a semi-annual newsletter written in English and Arabic in order to better educate the community. Community leaders are reaching out to their members by discussing the affects of environment through formal and informal meetings. The outcome of this strategy has been limited.

ACCESS Community Health Center is currently operating 12 health and medical programs. These programs employ a holistic approach to the health care needs of the community, with a special emphasis on conducting health research activities aimed at disease prevention, health promotion, and health protection. ACCESS Health Programs can be divided into two categories: services provided independently by ACCESS, and services offered in cooperation and coordination with other agencies. However, more direct steps are needed to educate the community, increase literacy, and provide low-cost health care.

Back to Table of Contents


Although this is a sensitive issue, ACCESS and the local industrial facilities have not yet reached any possible solutions. The administrators of the plant are aware of the health hazards inflicted on the community and are willing to engage in clean-up discussions. However, one issue preventing the parties from reaching a solution is Rouge Steel's refusal to take responsibility for toxic waste production and dumping. Rouge Steel's environmental liabilities have been limited by Ford's agreement to indemnify the company through Dec. 15, 2009 for any liabilities arising out of the environmental conditions in existence prior to the acquisition by Ford Motor Company. Because of the indemnification by Ford, Rouge Steel cannot be held liable for any environmental waste prior to 1989 (Taylor, 1995). Since most of the concerns regarding the current state of the environment relate to the earlier years of operation, Rouge Steel's liability is ambiguous.

Back to Table of Contents


While the situational mechanism of cleanup and redevelopment are complex, the issue remains to be that a greater amount of toxic chemicals are generated and released into the Arab American environment in Dearborn. ACCESS has recommended the following steps to safeguard the community's public health, natural resources, and quality of life:

  1. zero discharge of chlorine
  2. pollution prevention efforts
  3. continued research on health effectives
  4. a public health strategy that eliminates the threat of environmental hazards
  5. shift the burden of proof from the community to the polluters (Savoie, 1995)

Back to Table of Contents

Sources and Key Contacts

Environmental Program, ACCESS
2651 Saulino Court
Dearborn, MI 48120
Director: Kathryn Savoie

Arab American Community Center for Economic and Social Services
2651 Sauline Court
Dearborn, MI 48120
Director: Ismael Ahmed

Rouge Steel Co., Inc.
3001 Miller Road
Dearborn, MI 48120-1458
Contacts: Carl L. Vadiserri, Chairman
Louis D. Camio, President
Michael A. Weiss, Secretary

Wayne County ACCESS Clinic
9708 Dix
Dearborn, MI 48120
Director: Adnan Hammad

Works Cited

ACCESS, Arab Community Center for Economic and Social Services: Program Directory. May 1996.

Dorroh, Phylecia. 1995. ACCESS Environmental Program: Adverse Potential Health Effects of Industrial Pollutants in Dearborn, MI.

Hassoun, Rosina. 1995. ACCESS Environmental Program: Major Industrial Sources of Pollution in Dearborn, Toxic Release Inventory Data, Preliminary Report.

Hilts, Philip J. 1994. "Fine Pollutants in Air Cause Many Deaths, Study Suggests."

Investor's Exchange. 1995. Rouge Steel Company: Corporate Profile. Internet.

Kulwicki, Anahid. 1996. Health Facts: Arab Americans in Metropolitan Detroit.

Savoie, Kathryn and Rosina Hassoun. 1995. ACCESS Environmental Program: Major Sources of Pollution in Dearborn, Preliminary Report.

Taylor, Andrew. 1995. BBA Class Tours Rouge Steel. Internet.

Back to Table of Contents