WORDS BY YESSENIA FUNES
Paper may seem like a great alternative to plastic, but it’s got its own environmental issues, too. The Frontline explores how activism in Kalamazoo, Michigan, is finally shining a light on the city’s air pollution crisis.
You might think that paper is better than plastic. After all, paper doesn’t come from fossil fuels. It comes from trees and can often be composted—unlike plastic, which literally lasts forever in our trash. Still, paper takes a ton of energy to produce. And its production emits more than greenhouse gases.
There’s a dark side to paper—and that’s the industrialization that makes it possible in the first place. Have you ever thought about the paper mills that produce our boxes, cups, lids, straws, and takeout containers? About the families that live next door to them? Roughly 100 pulp mills are scattered across the U.S., according to environmental law firm Earthjustice. They emit about 23 million pounds annually of dangerous air pollutants, such as benzene and mercury. Research has linked such factories to increased cancer rates, too. In Kalamazoo, Michigan, paper recycling mills already polluted the Kalamazoo River from the 1950s to 1970s. Now, another paper mill and its expansion are coming under fire. Residents are sick and tired of being sick and tired.
Welcome to The Frontline, where we recognize there’s no climate justice without environmental justice. I’m Yessenia Funes, climate director of Atmos. We can’t solve the climate crisis without also mitigating the deep pollution communities face in the U.S. and abroad. Many communities are left more vulnerable to rising temperatures and climate calamity—all because of the air they breathe or the water they drink. The very gifts the Earth provides to keep us alive are hurting us… all because private interests have ruined them.
Deann Winfield has lived in Kalamazoo, Michigan, all her life. She raised her five kids in the city, but everything changed in 1997 when she gave birth to her twin girls. Winfield began to notice a smell, and she quickly developed asthma. “Some days, it smells like tar, and some days, it smells like a whole bunch of spoiled garbage,” she said.
On April 15, 2017, the air smelled like peppermint. “I’ll never forget that smell,” Winfield said. Around 11 a.m. that morning, Winfield got a call from the mother of her grandchildren alerting her that one of the twins, Laprace Stegall, was behaving strangely. Stegall, only 17 at the time, was having an asthma attack. By the time Winfield reached her daughter, Stegall had collapsed. At the hospital, she was pronounced dead.
“She wanted to go to college,” Winfield said, speaking of her daughter who had received a scholarship to an in-state college of her choice. “That’s all she talked about.”
And who does Winfield blame for this loss? Graphic Packaging International, a paper manufacturer with over 90 facilities around the globe. One of these sits across the street from Winfield’s home. She wasn’t living here when Stegall died; she was about five blocks away. Unbeknownst to her, the company is among the top 100 toxic air polluters in the U.S., according to the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s Political Economy Research Institute.
It’s difficult—and sometimes impossible—to prove whether a single polluter is the cause for an individual’s or community’s health outcomes. That hasn’t stopped residents from pointing fingers. Though the facility is among the city’s toxic producers, per the Environmental Protection Agency’s Toxics Release Inventory, there are 14 other polluting facilities within a 5-mile radius of Kalamazoo. Since at least 2018, however, residents have begun to question how much the paper mill is at fault. They’re especially invested now that the paper mill is completing a $600 million expansion. And they won’t stop asking questions. Not anymore.
“Environmental protection agencies are supposed to protect human health and the environment.”
The community outcry all started with one concerned mother: Brandi Crawford-Johnson. She developed asthma after she moved to Kalamazoo in 2012. In 2018, she realized the city’s air pollution may have something to do with it—so she kept digging. Now, she’s on a mission to take down not only Graphic Packaging International, but also the government officials who have ignored the community’s odor complaints over the last decade.
“Environmental protection agencies are supposed to protect human health and the environment,” Crawford-Johnson said. “It’s hard to accept that they will put polluters over people and profits over people. I still don’t get it. It still gives me anxiety talking about it.”
Fortunately, it seems the state is finally listening. Michigan officials began a health assessment for community members who live close to the paper mill last month. So far, the state has not identified any “immediate health concerns,” per an emailed statement from the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services, but the evaluation is ongoing with a report publishing in the “coming months.” In October, the state also told the community it believes exposure to the facility’s hydrogen sulfide releases are not a “short-term health concern,” but it’s still looking into long-term exposure risks.
In a statement to Atmos, Graphic Packaging International shared that it’s taken “significant steps” over the past few years to address odor concerns by improving its chemical treatment process, installing equipment to monitor air quality, and cooperating with the city and state on their assessments. The company is “encouraged” by the results of the October data the state shared, the statement went on.
“We understand that the evaluation of health concerns from long-term exposures and for other factors is still being investigated,” the statement said. “We will continue to work alongside city leaders and state and federal regulators as a critical stakeholder that is concerned about the health and well-being of our neighbors in Kalamazoo.”
Still, should the state and Graphic Packaging International actually expect residents to believe them? People still remember the state’s cover up of the lead water crisis in Flint, which is only two hours away.
That’s why Crawford-Johnson is making so much noise. She wants the whole world to know what’s happening to her friends and family in Kalamazoo. She’s been working closely with Winfield and other community residents to make their concerns heard through a class action lawsuit against Graphic Packaging International filed in 2020. She’s spoken before the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council and been featured on The Brockovich Report, a newsletter by Erin Brockovich, an environmental advocate whose work fighting groundwater contamination has received worldwide attention. Crawford-Johnson is on a mission to do the same for her loved ones in Kalamazoo. The numbers don’t lie—and they indicate a health crisis in Kalamazoo.
“I miss my daughter so much.”
In the predominantly Black Northside neighborhood of Kalamazoo, asthma hospitalization rates are two to five times higher than surrounding areas, according to independent research by Seth Spitzley, a certified health education specialist from Michigan who began assessing health disparities in Kalamazoo in 2020. Cancer is the second-leading cause of death in the county. None of this is what surprised Spitzley, though—what surprised him was the 14-year life expectancy gap across neighborhoods. The Northside community, for instance, has the lowest life expectancy in the county, per his analysis.
“I did realize that the community is underserved and underprivileged and is facing a variety of health and racial disparities, but when I saw that gap, I was pretty shocked because now I live less than a mile away,” Spitzley said. “That’s what really motivated me to do some more digging into this.”
Funny enough, Spitzley didn’t start investigating all of this until Crawford-Johnson reached out to him. He’s hoping to continue researching this in his free time and eventually get the research peer-reviewed and published. Ultimately, he sees an intersectional approach as the best way forward. The issue here isn’t only environmental; it’s social and economic, too.
Polluting facilities—be they a plastics refinery or a paper mill—don’t wind up in communities of color by accident. The systemic racism that feeds such realities is also why the climate crisis has been and will continue to be most damaging to Black and Brown communities. The health problems families see today are likely to worsen as the planet heats up. Dealing with industrial air pollution is bad enough. Now, imagine that during a heat wave.
There’s immediate care Kalamazoo residents need, but there’s also long-term questions around how to prevent these health problems from arising in the first place. In the meantime, many folks just want to get out. Crawford-Johnson left Kalamazoo in November, and her asthma has improved since then. As for Winfield? She’ll never get her daughter back. All she can do is try to protect her other four children. Her oldest—her son who’s 31—is on life support after an asthma attack in July 2020.
“I don’t give up because if my kids see me give up, then they’ll give up,” Winfield said. “I miss my daughter so much, but I have to be strong for the rest of them.”