From Terrible to Worse for Those Living in One of America's Most Polluted Zip Codes

Marathon Oil tar sands refinery in south west Detroit. (Photo: Kirk Allen/ Center for Public Integrity)

From Terrible to Worse for Those Living in One of America's Most Polluted Zip Codes

Marathon Petroleum's tar sands refinery in Detroit is poised to win approval to increase toxic emissions

The 48217 zip code--Michigan's, and one of the nation's, most polluted neighborhoods--on the south side of Detroit, is a long ways away from Paris, where global leaders recently cemented a deal recognizing the calamitous impact of greenhouse gas emissions on the Earth's climate.

This fact was underscored on Tuesday after reports that the Marathon Petroleum Corporation* tar sands refinery, which looms over the largely African American community, is poised to win state approval to expand its operation and increase emissions of toxic fossil fuel byproducts.

"The state Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) has announced it proposes to approve Marathon's revised air pollution permits, for a refinery modernization and expansion that would increase its emissions of oxides of nitrogen, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, small particulate pollution, and sulfuric acid mist," the Detroit Free Press reported Tuesday.

The Free Press also noted that the proposal would "increase sulfur dioxide emissions by 22 tons per year in an area the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has designated as being 'in non-attainment' for the pollutant--meaning out of compliance with federal air pollution standards."

Environmentalists and community organizers charge that the proposal not only illustrates a flagrant disregard for the state's floundering climate action plan, which Republican Governor Rick Snyder has refused to implement, but continues a legacy of neglect for Michigan's poorest and most vulnerable populations.

Rhonda Anderson, senior organizing representative with the local chapter of the Sierra Club, told Common Dreams that the state has "continuously neglected" this community with the repeated approval of "high impact" permits without any regard for the cumulative effect on the health of the local population.

"This area is the most polluted in the state of Michigan, almost in the United States," she said, noting that this one-time middle class community has for generations watched as toxic industries--including Marathon Oil, Ford Motor Company, and AK Steel--encroached on its streets.

For the people in the neighborhood, the impact of years of unchecked industry is palpable: Bloody noses, asthma, respiratory illness, cardiovascular disease, hypertension, diabetes, and cancer, are among the effects.

Jackie Smith, who has lived at her home just blocks away from the Marathon gates since the 1960s, told Common Dreams that all of her children suffered from nosebleeds growing up. "Doctors would ask if we lived near a refinery. I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'It's what you're breathing. There's no medicine for that.'"

Smith described the air around her home as a "jungle of chemicals."

"You can't open your window because it's in there. All the kids at the schools suffer from asthma and upper respiratory diseases...Why would they give them any more permission to put all those chemicals in the air?" she asked.

On Wednesday, the Michigan DEQ is holding a public meeting to get feedback from concerned citizens, as is required by the permit approval process. The local Sierra Club chapter is hoping to draw a large crowd, "to show decision makers that families living in this area deserve to breathe clean air like everybody else."

"When you look at these communities you look at people who do want to leave their homes, who have been faithful residents of this city, and this is the thanks they get," Kimberly Hill Knott, policy director with Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, told Common Dreams. "This community has been fighting for so many years and its a shame, its a crime that they keep issuing these permits in these particular communities."

"How many times do they have to tell the same stories?" Hill Knott added. "This is not the first time the DEQ has heard these comments."

Anderson said that it all comes back to "environmental racism, institutional racism, and the continued practice of this government to look out for industry"--at the expense of ordinary people.

*Correction: An earlier version of this piece mistakenly identified the owner of the refinery as Marathon Oil, a separate company which is separate from the Marathon Petroleum Corporation.

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