Despite Christine Whitman’s belief that "sound environmental practices are sound economic practices," 705 Detroit Diesel workers will be laid off in less than a week partly due to tougher clean air regulations, the company said in late September.
Whitman, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency administrator, has said that improving the environment is good for business. But in the case of Detroit Diesel and other U.S. engine makers, building engines that are better for the environment could lead to layoffs and a decrease in profits.
Whitman was in the Detroit area, on her 56th birthday, promoting several issues including clean air and water and the prevention of lead poisoning. Her big speech was at the Detroit Economic Club in Detroit.
Across town, Detroit Diesel worked on plans to switch production of its traditional line of truck engines to the new, lower-emission engine required by the federal government.
The switch, expected to be completed by Tuesday, Oct., will cause engine production to fall from 250 to between 50 and 60 per day, Detroit Diesel officials said. Consequently the company is eliminating second- and third-shift builders of its truck engines.
"We support the whole issue of cleaner air, the only issue was: Is it wise to do it so quickly, because if no one buys these engines it doesn’t help the air," said Tom Freiwald, Detroit Diesel spokesman. "Our position is that the truckers haven’t had time to test these engines, so let’s phase them in through 2003 so we don’t have to have these big layoffs."
But the EPA said Detroit Diesel and other engine makers had six years to meet standards.
"This is part of a negotiated settlement to which they were party at the time," Whitman said. "We have looked at the ability of others to meet the standards and we felt it was appropriate."
During her Economic Club speech, Whitman praised the automotive industry’s move toward fuel cells.
"Moving away from electric cars to focus more on the promise of hybrid electric cars and fuel-cell technology is not a step backward," Whitman said. "It is a step in the right direction and a step that will get us to the same goal of cleaner air."
She also said that as diesel engines in cars meet more low emission standards, the EPA will promote diesel engine use.
Before her speech, Whitman joined Michigan Secretary of State and congressional candidate Candice Miller as well as 32 fourth-grade science students from Emma V. Lobbestael School in Harrison Township to collect and test water samples from Lake St. Clair at Metro Beach.
However, Macomb County Health Department officials detected high levels of E. coli contamination and closed the beach Thursday, which prevented the students and Whitman from getting into the water. "The beach is closed today because of pollution, which is why we need your help in monitoring the water," Whitman told the students.
Later, in southwest Detroit, Whitman spoke to a classroom of mostly Hispanic mothers about lead poisoning at the Vistas Nuevas Head Start Center at Saints Peter and Paul Church.
"More than 1 million children in America -- and 18,000 in Detroit alone -- suffer from lead poisoning," she told the class through a translator. "The EPA aims to eliminate lead poisoning nationwide by 2010 with partners such as the Detroit Lead Partnership."