There’s something in the air: 48217’s environmental crisis

Wednesday, July 22, 2020 - 6:34pm

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Illustration by Hibah Mirza

With this piece, I am aiming to show the connections between what I have learned in my public health classes and through the Black Lives Matter (BLM) Movement. This piece does not serve as a lived-through representation of the experiences of many members of the BIPOC communities, nor of those who have directly experienced environmental racism throughout their lives. Instead, this piece was written in solidarity with the BLM movement in hope to shed light on connected issues that are influenced by structural and systemic racism. I welcome any suggestions and conversations and hope that this platform can continue to grow to share and include the experiences of those within these communities.

As I reflect on my childhood and the role that my environment has played in it, I’m reminded of the seemingly simple activity of recess in elementary school. Memories flood back to me: I feel the rare Michigan sun glazing on my skin and the fresh air filling my lungs with each inhalation. Whether it was by playing a game of soccer, hanging on monkey bars or the swings, we were happy to take a break and breathe the air outside of our classrooms. Not a sole worry ran through my mind — the only thing that consumed my thoughts was whether I’d win the game of four square or make it down the slide the quickest. All the childhood memories I enjoyed, I saw as a given rather than a privilege. I was never overtly cognizant that others may be experiencing life any differently than I did as a young child. For that young child, the fresh air was bountiful, and the clear sky was never-ending.

 

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As a prospective public health major looking through Wolverine Access last Fall, I stumbled across Public Health 305: The Environment and Human Health. I registered for this class thinking it would be an interesting addition to the science-based course load I was taking as a pre-med student. Before starting the class, I had expectations that the course would discuss broad, familiar societal issues like climate change and pollution. I was largely mistaken. Instead, Public Health 305 exposed me to more covert instances of environmental health issues in my neighboring communities and the undiscussed role that environmental racism plays in our society. 

Environmental racism refers to the ways communities of color, specifically Black communities, are being disproportionately harmed by environmental factors such as waste disposal, mobile sources of pollution, and industrial uses of neighboring land. This form of racism and its consequences are relevant to communities across the nation. Simple statistics indicate a vast racial inequality, as African Americans are exposed to 56 percent more pollution than they produce, while Non-Hispanic white Americans are exposed to 17 percent less. In fact, African Americans are 75 percent more likely to live near industrial facilities than white Americans, and Black communities nationwide are disproportionately exposed to air pollution. 

Within the first month of class, we were tasked with writing a one-page report that identified an environmental health issue in our hometown. We were expected to write a summary of the topic and how it impacts daily life in the community. I thought tirelessly about this assignment with nothing coming to mind. I would frantically search the phrase “environmental health issues in Troy, Michigan” in an attempt to unearth a problem that I was unaware of in my hometown, a suburb of Detroit. I even reached out to a friend in the class for guidance, but she too couldn't find instances of environmental issues in her suburb. At this point, the assignment felt arduous, but I was determined to find a topic I was interested in and wanted to research further. 

My research led me to find a pressing issue within Detroit: the Marathon refinery, a crude oil corporation, in Michigan’s most polluted zip code, 48217. The air toxicity in 48217 proved to be a severely dangerous issue, and I was shocked this problem wasn’t covered in every major news outlet. I was initially hesitant to write about an issue in Detroit because I didn’t want to claim the experiences of those who lived there as my own. However, I felt motivated to use this as an opportunity to educate myself and my classmates on an issue that has been devastatingly affecting the health of our neighbors for years.

As I dug deeper in my research on the Marathon refinery, I was taken back to vivid memories of driving on I-75. On the way home from particularly long trips outside of Michigan, I would muster up the little energy I had to look out the car window. As I passed cars on the highway, I would see factories release billowing plumes of emissions into the air of 48217 and nearby communities. I remember noticing the deserted area filled with industrial smokestacks, refineries and power plants — many of which were embroidered with Marathon’s red block M logo. At the time, I dismissed these issues as being common to nearly every major city in the country. I assumed that this area was mostly inhabited by factories that emitted pollution, with no resident communities nearby, thereby protecting the health of vulnerable populations. Moreover, I rationalized that these factories strictly adhered to emission safety guidelines, so any potential nearby resident communities would not be harmed. 

However, through independent research for my class, I realized I was wrong: the exact polluting factories I had frequently driven by were consistently endangering the health of the nearby residents. Additionally, I was struck by 48217’s demographics. The population in 48217 is 80.7 percent Black, has a median home value of $53,100, and the median household income is $26,705. This zip code also contains among the highest percentage of people that have not graduated high school, at 22.7 percent, as well as only 11.5 percent of the population has attained an associate’s degree or higher. My research led to a reckoning with privilege. The bubbled reality that kept me sheltered from the evident environmental racism in my own backyard was quickly popped. 

In an interview for the Detroit Metro Times, one resident from 48217 in particular, Carmen Garrison, noted that she avoids going outdoors, certain that the air is poisoning her. Furthermore, she explains that as a child she would have headaches and nausea solely from walking to school. Even three decades later, Garrison explained that “her eyes burn, her throat hurts, and her nose runs if she takes even a short stroll down the road.” These symptoms aren’t unique to her — she expressed that neighbors share similar experiences when exposed to the toxic air. Thousands of people in this community live in the shadows of these polluting refineries. The power of this issue drew me to focus on it for my class. 

For my public health paper, I decided to narrow the focus to the history of the malfunctioning flaring events at Marathon. These events were one of the primary causes of adverse health effects like those Garrison experienced. Over the years, the Marathon refinery, the only petroleum refinery in Michigan, has grown into one of the nation’s largest pollution-spewing refineries dangerously affecting the health of Detroiters. I initially stumbled upon the flaring event that took place on October 29, 2018, which unexpectedly generated loud noises and pollution in neighboring communities. Flaring events are common for refineries, as they are used as safety measures to burn off excess gas and liquid. However, this flaring exceeded the threshold permitted by the law and released more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide (SO2) into the environment. SO2 is particularly harmful to the human respiratory tract, especially for vulnerable populations, including but not limited to the elderly and young children. Upon further investigation, I learned this Marathon refinery had actually exceeded the 500 pound SO2 threshold 11 times in 2018 alone. It is additionally estimated that this refinery has averaged just as many violations of the threshold each year since 2014. These flaring events release harmful carcinogens and chemicals into the environment, contributing immensely to poor air quality.

Focusing primarily on these above threshold flaring events, I wrote that first one-page summary in the beginning of the semester. However, I was later challenged by two more writing assignments where we were to expand upon the environmental issue we had chosen. We were tasked to write detailed reports on how this environmental issue arose in our community, which agencies would be responsible for it, how to analyze its health effects, and possible interventions to mitigate any adverse health effects this issue may have caused. I continued to explore the implications of the Marathon refinery’s flaring events, as well as the history Marathon’s development in 48217. 

In 2012, Marathon completed a $2.2 billion expansion of its refinery facility in 48217, allowing the production of significantly more barrels each day and in turn, releasing more pollutants. In anticipation of issues that would arise from this expansion, Marathon created a buyout program that would allow residents to sell their home. Marathon offered above-market prices to buy homes in Oakwood Heights, the predominantly white neighborhood in northern 48217. However, the same was not offered to Boynton, the predominantly Black neighborhood in southern 48217. Even with protests in 2017 asking Marathon to purchase more homes, there was no response from the company. Ultimately, through this program, Marathon purchased homes in primarily white neighborhoods instead of Black ones, which allowed white communities to get monetary compensation while escaping from the pollution. The Black neighborhoods, however, were left to live near the refineries, not only lowering their property values but also troubling them with the air pollution that would result. 

Marathon’s lack of action for Black communities unveiled to me substantial issues regarding underlying corporational racism. Particularly, Marathon was placing a disproportionate and life-threatening burden placed on communities of color, through health, economic and social hazards. The multitude of adverse health effects this air pollution unjustly places on its residents includes higher rates of asthma, cancer, birth defects, cognitive impairments, heart disease, respiratory problems, brain damage and shortness of breath. But most evidently, it perpetuates the cycle of environmental racism and exploitation of our most vulnerable communities. The effects of this air pollution are pervasive, and have been affecting poor and minority populations for decades. 

 

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As I woke up and checked my phone a few weeks ago, I was greeted by multiple Instagram posts on the topic of environmental racism — some even mentioning the injustices occurring in 48217. Seeing 48217 reminded me that this issue goes beyond just my classroom experience with it, as the residents in this area have been suffering, and continue to, for decades. These problems were now being noticed and amplified by the thousands of likes on one post alone. This reminder motivated me to speak to others and learn from  their experiences, in an effort to further understand the issue through firsthand narratives. 

Through a series of Instagram direct messages with Chyna, a user who grew up in 48217, I learned that Marathon was never, and still isn’t, transparent about the risks of living in this area. She explained that she believes this dire instance of environmental racism deserves as much media coverage as the Flint Water Crisis. Furthermore, she added that the residents of 48217 have been overexposed to pollutants, explaining, “the data available shows that more drastic measures need to be taken to save lives effectively.” 

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In relation to the general 48217 community, an article by the Detroit Metro Times discussed how residents no longer grow fresh produce due to the contamination of soil with poisonous lead and arsenic. These residents also compare living in this area to a “war zone” where they can hardly breathe. In addition to this sentiment, Vince Martin, an environmental activist who grew up in southwest Detroit, remarked that there were more people in his class dead than alive at his 30-year high school reunion. I was shocked by this incredibly powerful statement — in my mind, high school reunions are supposed to be joyous occasions for catching up with classmates. Martin’s experience was instead plagued by grief and loss. His unfortunate reality displays how environmental racism is so deeply rooted within 48217 that even the life expectancy of its residents is dramatically reduced.

The Marathon flaring violations and contaminated soil are not isolated examples of environmental racism suffered by Detroit communities. Instead, they offer a small snapshot of the plight of these communities. Looking at the neighboring community, about 10 miles northeast in 48211, sits the now shut down Detroit Renewable Power Incinerator. This incinerator burned 3,300 tons of trash from nearby communities each day, and released unregulated amounts of carcinogens into the environment. It was shut down in March 2019 because it violated the federal Clean Air Act 446 times in 2015 and 2016 alone. One can only imagine how many people were detrimentally impacted by these violations. While the environmental injustices present in 48217 seem to be the worst out of all areas of Detroit and Michigan, these issues are rampant throughout the entirety of the country. These types of environmental injustices fall disproportionately on our most vulnerable communities and those of color, making it even more difficult to survive. 

Nationwide, environmental racism is closely tied to racial segregation. This has resulted from years of systemic oppression, as well as exclusionary public policies at every level of the government. People of color, especially Black people, are frequently politically and financially disempowered. This factor in turn leads to historically lower property values of which large corporations and factories take advantage of. This disempowerment combined with political systems such as redlining and zoning perpetuates the cycle of higher air pollution in these Black communities. These environmental factors are often used as justification from white and higher socioeconomic status individuals to prevent integrating in these primarily colored communities, and can lead to them purchasing homes further away. At the same time, this segregation, discrimination and other environmental factors have prevented African Americans from buying homes in less environmentally harmful areas, further continuing the cycle of environmental racism they experience.

Undoubtedly, major reform is needed to address the systemic racism present throughout all facets of society, one, in particular, being environmental racism. Taking Public Health 305 allowed me to research this environmental racism issue in depth from the perspective of a public health student working towards achieving health equity for all. However, amidst the social movement of Black Lives Matter, I’ve further realized how important and pressing of an issue environmental racism is amongst the greater goal for ending the systemic racial disparities faced by our Black communities. It should be highlighted that while for some, these inequities may seem physically distant and new, these embedded problems have been troubling our neighboring communities for decades. 

And while this piece focuses on 48217, environmental racism is interwoven throughout the country, unjustly exposing Black and minority communities to higher rates of environmental harm. The Black Lives Matter Movement calls for justice for Black communities, and drastic measures are needed to counter environmental racism experienced by these communities. As allies, it is our responsibility to educate ourselves, learn from others’ experiences, and fight for the end of institutional and systemic racism through our actions and deeds. 

As I’ve grown older and seen the devastating environmental issues that others face daily, I recognize how much liberty was in the daily actions that I never thought twice about. I now perceive what a privilege it was to feel comfortable being outside, without fear that the air I was breathing in could be causing damage to my developing lungs as a child. This privilege I had was by no means universal  —  residents in communities just a 30 minute drive from me avoid breathing outside air in fear of accumulating a multitude of health issues. While my childhood was filled with clear skies and freely breathing the outside air, the children in 48217 grew up in fear of the severe air pollution that resided within their environment. 

Growing up in a suburb of Detroit, I had heard about the many issues that burden this city, in particular the devastating air quality. However, it was only recently that I truly grasped how severe the air pollution is in parts of Detroit and its rippling effects on residents. The poor air quality has been burdening the vulnerable populations here for decades. These inequities, based in systemic and structural racism, exist all throughout society and often strip populations of their fundamental rights to clean air and living conditions. Access to clean air and unpolluted water should always be a right, not a privilege reserved for the rich. 

For further information, I recommend this article by the Detroit Metro Times, The Guardian, as well an initiative by the University of Michigan School of Public Health to improve air quality and health in Detroit, through the Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CA-PHE) partnership

 

Lakshmi Meyyappan can be reached at lrmeyya@umich.edu