Detroit’s most polluted ZIP code—the heavily Black 48217—fights for environmental justice

Last year, 271 people were murdered in Detroit, giving it the third-highest homicide rate among large U.S. cities. Grim as that total is, the University of Michigan School of Public Health estimates that 650 of Detroit’s inhabitants die each year from pollution. In a two-part series that began in January, Steve Neavling at the weekly Detroit Metro Times reports that 48217 at the city’s southwest tip is the ZIP code where that pollution is worst. It’s no surprise that residents there are mostly poor and 81% Black, with a significant Hispanic population:

The community is inundated with a toxic stew of chemicals wafting from steel mills, coal-fired power plants, gas flares, billowing smokestacks, towering piles of coal and petroleum coke, a salt mine, wastewater treatment plant, and one of the nation’s largest oil refineries—all looming over schools, neighborhoods, parks, senior centers, and a recreation center. A nauseating stench of rotten eggs, burnt plastic, and gasoline permeates the air. Heavy-duty trucks spewing harmful emissions rumble to and from factories all day and night, often carrying toxic chemicals and debris.

Last December, the air was so bad in Detroit that for 12 days the Environmental Protection Agency warned residents of dangerously high levels of ozone and fine particulate matter. 

The news isn’t all bad. Community activists over the past few years have been building coalitions designed to bring environmental justice to Detroit, and produced a plan—Working Together to Improve Detroit’s Air—in 2017. Among the many groups are Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice and the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. Last year Michigan’s Democratic Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate to provide government support for the fight against environmental racism. At the beginning of this year, she created the Environmental Justice Advisory Council.

But it’s still a slog. As every activist knows so well, calling for justice and actually getting it are far from the same thing. And developing and deploying fixes has not been helped by the Trump regime’s attitude that environmental protection that gets in the way of profit should be stomped. 

At the heart of 48217 is the Boynton neighborhood in Wayne County, which together with Macomb and Oakland counties makes up what residents call the Tri-Counties. Four of the state’s top emitters of harmful particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and nitrous oxides—the source of respiratory issues—are located within a five-mile radius of Boynton. 

The flow of toxic chemicals includes benzene, chromium, dioxin, lead compounds, and hydrogen cyanide. In concentrated form, the latter was used by the Nazis to murder millions of Jews and others in World War II death camps. But it is also generated as a byproduct of refining crude oil, and even small amounts can nausea, breathing trouble, and chest pain. According to countless studies, all that pollution causes asthma, cardiovascular disease, liver damage, cancer, brain damage, birth defects, learning disabilities, behavioral problems in children, and premature deaths. The Michigan Department of Community Health designated the Tri-Counties as the “epicenter of asthma burden.”

One of the polluters is the Marathon oil refinery, which includes a 250 acre tank farm. It refines 140,000 barrels of oil a day (5.8 million gallons) and produces 29 toxins. Since 2013, it has received 15 violation notices from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) for exceeding regulations designed to control emission limits. 

In 2012, Neavling writes, the company wanted to expand again and offered to buy homes at above-market prices in the mostly white neighborhood of Oakwood Heights in northern 48217. Marathon didn’t make the same offer to the mostly Black neighborhood of southern 48217. And when residents there protested in 2017 and sought to get the company to buy their homes, it ignored them. For its part, Marathon asserts that it has invested heavily in pollution controls and contributed $2 million to renovate a recreation center. 

In the 20 years immediately after World War II, Tri-Counties was quite different, a vibrant neighborhood filled with Black-owned businesses and residences in a city segregated with restrictive covenants. Neavling again:

“We had our own Harlem renaissance,” lifelong resident Theresa Landrum tells Metro Times. “It used to be a utopia.” […]

But that life was cut short. Over the next few decades, more pollution-spewing factories sprang up or expanded despite strong opposition from the predominantly Black community. In a three-mile radius surrounding the Tri-[Counties] are more than four dozen polluters that are monitored by the EPA, including AK Steel, Great Lakes Water Authority waste treatment plant, DTE Energy plants, EDW Levy Co. plant, Magni Industries, Air Products and Chemicals Inc., and St. Marys Cement.

Theresa Landrum is a local resident and community activist. Both of her parents died of cancer and she is herself a cancer survivor. She noted: “Racism is so interwoven into the fabric of America. We don’t need Jim Crow or slavery anymore. We got it right here—economically, environmentally, and socially. And then no one wants to address it.” Anyone who thinks that’s an exaggeration should read the 2017 report from the NAACP, the National Medical Association, and the Clean Air Task Force entitled Fumes Across the Fence-Line. African Americans, the researchers wrote, are 75% more likely to live near industrial facilities than white people.

Five ZIP codes away from Boynton—in 48211—U.S. Ecology is bent on expansion of its hazardous waste operations in a community that is two-thirds African American. That’s no shocker since seven of the state’s eight hazardous waste facilities are located in predominantly Black communities. As shown by a 2007 study led by Robert Bullard, who is widely viewed as the father of environmental justice, “’people of color are found to be more concentrated around hazardous waste facilities than previously shown.’ You will see that race matters. Place matters too. Unequal protection places communities of color at special risk. And polluting industries still follow the path of least resistance, among other findings.”

U.S. Ecology has been cited in the past decade more than 150 times for exceeding the allowable level of toxic chemicals into the sewer system. Nonetheless, at the beginning of this year, EGLE approved a permit allowing a ninefold increase in the company’s storage of toxic waste. That waste includes arsenic, cyanide, mercury, PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls), and PFAS (per- and polyfluoroalkyls). 

“For decades, companies such as U.S. Ecology have sought out communities of color for their hazardous waste facilities because they were seen as the path of least resistance for places to store, treat, and dispose of our society’s poisons,” Michelle Martinez, director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, said in a statement. “We need EGLE to step up and protect us from environmental racism, or this legacy will continue for another several decades.”

The fight over the expansion has become a major one, with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center having filed a 55-page civil rights complaint with EGLE. The complaint argues that under the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and EPA’s Title VI, regulations should ensure communities of color aren’t disproportionately placed at risk from environmental hazards.

This fight ought to be slam dunk. But that’s not how it works. The only way it does work is when people fight back, finding allies where they can. In a Metro-Times interview with U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib—who was raised in southwest Detroit—the congresswoman said: “Sometimes we underestimate the incredible power we have. We must tell ourselves that we have the right to breathe clean air. We have the right to go to schools and parks and not worry about the air we’re breathing.” 

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