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Natural carbon buffers may create an oasis out of an onerous area in Delray

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Growth to the region is good, but for Delray residents caught in the crosshairs of the planned Gordie Howe International Bridge the new infrastructure presents challenges.

While the $2.1 billion project is expected to create jobs and generate revenue from international trade between the United States and Canada, Southwest Detroit area residents of the Delray community that will house the bridge remain concerned about hazardous air emissions.

Scheduled to open in 2030, the bridge will further increase currently heavy industrial traffic by 125 percent, according to the Southwest Detroit Community Benefits Coalition. Greater traffic volumes, congestion and related vehicle emissions can contribute to asthma and other respiratory and health issues. The impact of the future bridge’s presence, combined with emissions from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Plant, concerns community residents and Southwest Detroit activists, including Elias Gutierrrez, publisher of Latino Press.

“It is (already) such a huge amount of pollution that all the houses and buildings are starting to be covered with a thick layer of black dust, which is very difficult to remove,” says Gutierrez.

One in five children living in Southwest Detroit is already afflicted with asthma, leading to discussion and joint efforts by agencies like the Michigan Department of Transportation, the City of Detroit, the Greening of Detroit, and Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision (SDEV).

Greening of Detroit plans to add carbon buffers

Greening of Detroit plans to add carbon buffers

Truck lines are one of SDEV’s targets for action and local companies are cooperating, says Rebeca Villegas, SDEV program director and air-quality specialist. Commercial vehicles on the road today are regulated by federal Clean Diesel guidelines and release about 60 percent less pollution than their predecessors, but SDEV says there’s room for improvement.

“We work with commercial truckers to secure state and federal grants to either replace trucks that are emitting pollution into the air, or we give them technology so they’re giving virtually zero emissions,” says Villegas. “A lot of times these companies are very interested, but they don’t know about the funding that can be utilized toward replacing all these vehicles and trucks.”

Through initiatives like the federally funded Clean Diesel program that support truck “fleet turnover,” SDEV has helped lead a collaborative of about 20 organizations. Clean Diesel reimburses participating transport companies 25 percent of their expenses.

The program makes sense to Kirk Mayes, CEO of Forgotten Harvest, the non-profit known for its mission to help feed hungry metro Detroiters. When he learned the same trucks his organization uses to transport food to pantries that serve families could be releasing harmful carbon dioxide into neighborhoods, he was among local business leaders who were receptive to Clean Diesel.

“As we put the new replacement commercial trucks acquired under the Clean Diesel programs into our fleet, we are humbled and grateful for our involvement with SDEV and other partners to help improve the environment,” Mayes says.

Preparations are underway to create a carbon buffer at I-96 and Michigan Ave.

Preparations are underway to create a carbon buffer at I-96 and Michigan Ave.

SDEV’s other initiatives include a recently implemented state grant to reduce nitrogen oxide emissions, resulting in 105.6 tons of decreased pollution, Villegas says. SDEV is also exploring possible ways to reroute vehicles, creating distance from neighborhoods.

Carbon buffers, typically forestry planted near major freeways and thoroughfares, represent another environmentally safe and visually appealing way to protect residents from urban traffic volumes.

Across the Detroit River, Windsor, with its green landscape greeting those who enter the city, is a great model for buffering between thoroughfares and citizens, says Rico Razo, manager of Detroit’s District 6, which encompasses the Delray neighborhood.

“Windsor is an example of one approach we can take,” says Razo, adding that the city’s bike paths and tree-lined corridors add to downtown residents’ quality of life across the river.

Meanwhile, efforts to create more natural space in Southwest Detroit are underway, says Dean Hay, Greening of Detroit’s director of green infrastructure. More than 122 trees will be planted in the area of Michigan Avenue and I-75 late in November, made possible with U.S. Forest Service funds.

“They’ve identified trees as one of the best ways to mitigate the pollution that develops along freeways,” Hay says.

The size of the Michigan Avenue planting constitutes a large-scale forest, he adds, but the trees won’t mature for many years. Ground root systems from trees, Hay says, can help prevent street flooding and drainage issues like Detroit experienced in August 2014’s flood that closed freeways, damaged homes and even contributed to deaths.

Sarah Clark, SDEV director of programs, says not only will the tree planting create a “carbon buffer” against traffic, it will discourage certain crimes.

“If you’re in a neighborhood that looks like it’s being well-kept it reduces illegal dumping,” says Clark.

Editor’s Note: Latino Press, an editorial partner of TheHUB, contributed reporting to this story.

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