Zip code area 48217 along the Rouge and Detroit Rivers in Southwest Detroit is known as the most polluted zip code in Michigan as well as the third most polluted area in the entire country . This part of Detroit has had a long history of environmental racism, starting with its primarily African-American residents’ ancestors who migrated there after the end of slavery to work in dirty industries promising a good working class life to those fleeing racial traumas and poverty in the South at a time when few other opportunities presented themselves. 48217 quickly became a ¨sacrifice zone,¨ or a ¨pollution hotspot¨ that rapidly industrialized thanks often to a "people-of-color", low-income population taking on the burdens of industrial pollution while also having very few amenities such as adequate healthcare or decent food options . The population today is still predominantly Black, consisting of 82.7% African-Americans and a rising population of Hispanics. 38.1% of locals live below the poverty line . The fountain of opportunities has also long since dried up, with most jobs going to outsiders. Only 41 of the refinery's 524 employees live in Detroit .
The largest polluter in this community is the Marathon Petroleum Corporation (MPC, also known as Marathon Oil), but within a four-mile radius, there are more than 27 other industrial facilities in a place where breaking environmental regulations is the norm . Marathon´s Detroit tar sands oil processing facility, merely a few blocks from people´s homes, has a history of noncompliance and excessive emissions . The refinery failed three EPA inspections since 2016 and received nine environmental violations from the state in 2018. In 2019, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) issued at least nine violations to Marathon for noxious odors and exceeding legal limits on toxic emissions . Consequently, toxicity levels in 48217 are alleged to be more than 45 times higher than the state average, designating this a ¨non-attainment zone¨ greatly exceeding what the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) permits under the Clean Air Act [3, 7].
The air smells very strongly of rotten eggs, burnt plastic, and gasoline because of all the toxic emissions spewing out of the factories and heavy-duty trucks. The smell is so bad that residents cannot sleep because they choke and cough all night and feel nauseous even at home with their windows closed and with face masks on. One of the infinite rainbow of deadly chemicals in the air, hydrogen cyanide, comes from crude oil processing. As a result, locals suffer disproportionately from high rates of asthma; cancer; brain, heart, and respiratory disease; miscarriages, birth defects, and infertility; and cognitive impairments all linked to the intense pollution. Even brief exposures cause breathing trouble, nausea, headaches, chest pains, sore throats, runny noses, and vomiting. The University of Michigan School Of Public Health estimates that air pollution kills more than 650 Detroiters a year, which is more than twice the number of residents killed by gun violence annually. Thousands more are hospitalized, and children miss a disproportionate number of days at school because of illnesses and asthma. Moreover, standardized test scores indicate the higher the concentration of contaminants in children´s blood, the worse their performance was . Healthcare responses to the dire situation have also not been very helpful. Physicians are often insensitive or unaware of major barriers that residents face when it comes to accessing care such as cost, access to pharmacies, and communication differences. Consequently, healthcare professionals are not able to accommodate many needs. This inadequate attention to and treatment of serious illnesses such as asthma has led to many locals resorting to sharing and rationing inhalers or even buying inhalers from an underground medicine black market .
In 2006, despite years of local resistance and pollution complaints as well as more than $4.5 million worth of penalties for persistently violating environmental regulations, the City of Detroit gave billionaire company Marathon Petroleum Corporation $175 million in tax breaks to expand the refinery to be able to process high-sulfur tar sands from Alberta, Canada, some of the dirtiest fossil fuels . MPC promised to create so many jobs for a city which was already suffering badly from the nation´s highest unemployment rates and bankruptcy, However, the refinery only hired 15 additional Detroiters as a result of the expansion . Only a year later, a massive cancer epidemic swept 48217, and almost every home had cancer victims or deaths. On some blocks, cancer even killed more than ten people, with one block on Bassett Street holding the record of 17 cancer deaths. Local residents had up to three funerals a week. Concerned locals began circulating a survey to determine how serious the problem was. The results confirmed their suspicions: Residents were dying at rates far higher than the state average. Their study, however, was largely ignored even though they were at least expecting an expert follow-up study .
To prepare for a $2.2 billion expansion, in 2012, MPC offered to buy homes in Oakwood Heights for $50-60,000 (above market prices) so that the residents would have enough money to move out to nicer homes in less contaminated areas . Oakwood Heights is a predominantly white neighborhood in northern 48217. However, the mostly Black neighborhood of Boynton in southern 48217 did not get any housing buyout offers, leaving its poor residents no choice but to suffer from pollution in homes that no one would buy . Hundreds of complaints were filed against Marathon, but the company refused to extend their buyout program to the African-American neighborhood . It was around this time that Emma Lockridge, a 66-year-old former radio news program reporter and grandmother, began taking care of her mother who became gravely ill from Marathon´s pollution, which, following the tar sands expansion, resulted in a film of black particles collecting on every surface every few days. That film is what all locals breathe every day. Emma herself also has kidney failure and lymphoma, which are common in the sacrifice zone. Her house used to be worth almost $100,000 before economic crises and bad publicity over the toxicity in the neighborhood sank the value to only $10,000. She and many of her neighbors could not afford to move without the buyout program´s help . Enraged by this unfair turn of events, she began mobilizing people into action to push MPC toward finally relocating everyone in affected neighborhoods . Not only did she organize protests and marches, but she also gathered evidence against Marathon by going up close to its facilities to collect data and take pictures and videos at risk to her health. In April 2013, an explosion at the refinery sent rolling plumes of black smoke and toxic chemicals into the air, prompting police in gas masks to close off streets and evacuate residents. Yet still, Emma was there through all the flares and the worst of the odors, documenting what was happening . Marathon even still refused to change, and one week later, even won a safety award from the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration. The complicity between industry and government had never been clearer .
Tired of continuously being ignored, in 2016, Emma and the people of 48217 then secured funding from the Sierra Club to partner with the University of Michigan for a yearlong study monitoring air quality. The results, unsurprisingly, indicated excessive levels of a wide variety of deadly carcinogens such as sulfur dioxide, naphthalene, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium. Their report indicated each chemical, which companies used that chemical, how much of that chemical they were releasing, and resulting health impacts. However, the funding has since run out, and those working on it are still trying to secure more funding to continue by trying to pull money from what Marathon is supposed to be paying for environmental damages .
Another incident occurred February 2019, when a fog smelling powerfully of rotten cabbage descended on 48217. Locals began experiencing intense nausea, breathing problems, eye and throat irritation, and vomiting to the point that some of them called 911 because they were afraid they were being gassed by a lethal poison. What happened was that a gas flare malfunctioned while workers were decommissioning some equipment, causing a propane line to rupture and release more than 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and more than 500 points of sulfur dioxide [14, 15]. The unit was quickly shut down and workers knocked the vapors down with water. The Toxic Substances & Disease Registry added that the smell was likely from methyl mercaptan, a flammable chemical matching the symptoms people reported. Marathon claimed that they had been monitoring the air for hours after the incident and did not find any problematic levels of vapors even though two of their workers were hospitalized because of the accident. Lying about these incidents is fairly common, as Emma reported that whenever sirens go off indicating possible explosions and visible flaming smoke, she calls Marathon who says that nothing is happening . Citizens were outraged that the City of Detroit and the Detroit Police Department did not warn anyone about the incident or about the potential dangers of living in the area, and did not evacuate residents, and many filed complaints with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights.
In response to mass criticism, MPC representatives stated that in the last two decades, they have already cut emissions by 80% and invested in $250 million to lower emissions [3, 14]. These efforts to lower emissions are dubious, however, and could, in fact, increase health and environmental risks to the people of 48217. New investments, favored by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, have been proposed to lower the overall volume of emissions by changing the equipment and production process in compliance with EPA standards to instead produce a lesser amount of more toxic fumes that would spread out less (and thus concentrate more dramatically in 48217). These new fumes would be even higher in pollutants such as sulfur dioxide, which is linked to asthma, respiratory failure, heart disease, and premature deaths .
During the chemical flare investigations, there was also a congressional hearing convened by U.S. Representative Rashida Tlaib attended by approximately 200 people. Environmental justice advocates, residents, and academic experts testified about hazards that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income areas. The leak at the Marathon refinery was just the latest of many cases of the flares, leaks, and explosions that have become a normal part of daily life in 48217 . They demanded better infrastructure, green buffers to offset the amount of pollutants reaching homes, cumulative impact analyses, structural legal changes, real accountability, and permitting processes giving residents a say in whether to issue permits to polluting companies such as Marathon . Another topic brought up was how a lot of white people were talking for frontline communities, but residents´ voices and perspectives themselves were often crowded out .
Marathon to this day still does not want to buy out Boynton homes, and as Emma explained in an interview, the deteriorating and abandoned houses in the area are now becoming populated as various, more diverse demographics look for low-cost homes closer and closer to the pollution . The neighborhood continues to be exposed to gas and oil leaks without much progress in getting MPC to relocate people. Yet the community continues to be actively protesting for a buy-out, and is also currently working on a federal class-action lawsuit filed by over a thousand locals against MPC . ¨ I will continue to fight until I die,” says Emma. “I have already been diagnosed with kidney failure, cancer and asthma. The fight has already given me a death sentence, so I’ll continue to fight until I’m dead¨ .