‘If we were white… they wouldn’t allow it’: ‘Environmental racism’ in ‘most polluted’ Detroit neighbourhood

In a corner of southwest Detroit, there’s a community that’s spent years grappling with the air they’re breathing in.

The 48217 district has become known as Michigan’s “most polluted zip code”.

There are more than two dozen pollutant-producing facilities owned by multiple companies scattered in and around the area.

Pollution in the area
Image:The area is crisscrossed by highways and choked by air emissions
A house in the neighbourhood with industrial plant in front of industrial plant
Image:A house in the district sits near an industrial plant

Steel mills sit alongside coal-fired power plants, car manufacturing factories and one of the nation’s largest oil refineries.

That heady mix of industry creates a stew of chemicals and an intense, smelly, smog.

The area is crisscrossed by highways and choked by air emissions.

It’s hard to believe just how close some of the houses are to these sites, with only an interstate separating them from billowing smoke.

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In 2020, it became a campaign stop for Democratic candidates wanting to tout their environmental plans.

Locals say the pollutants have had major impacts on their health, contributing to a multitude of respiratory issues and they believe, cancer.

Theresa Landrum, who has survived cancer, said more than 12 people on her block have died of the illness
Image:Theresa Landrum, who has survived cancer, said more than 12 people on her block have died of the disease

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Theresa Landrum, a leader in the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, said: “On my block where I live, not a city street, but a city block, we’ve had more than 12 people die of cancer and I’m the only cancer survivor still alive on the street that I grew up on.”

Next to huge towers pumping out smoke, is a playground bereft of children.

Vicky Dobbins, who grew up in nearby River Rouge, says they started questioning what was in the air from an early age witnessing a thick covering of what looked like dust on the cars.

She said: “The people begin to ask the question, what’s going on, what’s in the smoke? Then they start telling us, S02 (Sulphur dioxide), CO2 (carbon dioxide).”

She says she’s now convinced “those things are killing trees and killing people”.

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Ms Landrum says people of colour are at the sharp end of issues in this largely black area and across the country.

She said: “African-Americans had been put into or forced to live in areas that are polluted.

“So environmental racism has a lot to do with where we live and where these factories and these industries are located.

“If we were white and this was harming our children in our womb, in the womb and we were white, they wouldn’t allow it.”

The Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA, call this a non-attainment area because of the dangerous levels of sulphur dioxide which can cause asthma.

Smog at street level
Image:The 48217 district has become known as Michigan’s ‘most polluted zip code’

It said Marathon Petroleum Corporation, the oil refinery which has a site that covers more than 200 acres, emits 23 hazardous air pollutants (HAPs), as defined by the Clear Air Act.

That act says HAPs “are those pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer or other serious health effects, such as reproductive effects or birth defects, or adverse environmental effects”.

But in a statement to Sky News, Marathon Petroleum Corporation said it was “committed to continuing our partnership with the community to improve the quality of life here” and had already committed $5bn (£3.59bn) to buying up homes in the Boynton neighborhood of southwest Detroit, to help create a green space and buffer zone for residents.

It also said it has reduced emissions by 80% over 20 years and, according to figures from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, its emissions comprise a small fraction (less than 3%) of those within a two-mile radius of the facility.

A mural
Image:Joe Biden has set out extremely ambitious plan to help tackle climate change and environmental pollution

It isn’t about one company though.

Ms Landrum believes the danger is in the cumulative effect and many residents like her want more extensive monitoring of air locally to assess that.

There have been air quality monitors installed and apparent improvements in some areas, but activists want to see a lot more.

There is some dispute over whether 48217 still deserves its “most polluted” moniker.

More testing would not only help resolve that but most importantly improve the lives of those living there.

Erin Brockovich says ageing infrastructure and companies that can afford to keep paying fines is part of the cycle of issues
Image:Erin Brockovich says ageing infrastructure and companies that can afford to keep paying fines is part of the cycle of issues

The story of the 48217 district bears the hallmarks of many that renowned environmentalist Erin Brockovich keeps hearing about from people across America.

She says ageing infrastructure and companies that can afford to keep paying fines is part of the cycle of issues.

She says people are being “assaulted by everything you can think of – food, air, water, land”.

Poor access to clean water supplies, droughts, hurricanes, toxic air and water shut-offs keep hitting communities.

One of the plants
Image:One of the district’s plants

Joe Biden has touted an extremely ambitious plan to help tackle climate change and environmental pollution.

His challenge, though, will be balancing his big green ideas with big job generation.

Many residents in 48217 are hopeful he can bring change, but America has a very long way to go.

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Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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