Struggling to breathe in 48217, Michigan’s most toxic ZIP code

Part one of a series on environmental racism in Michigan

click to enlarge Marathon’s oil refinery in Southwest Detroit. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Marathon’s oil refinery in Southwest Detroit.

Carmen Garrison avoids the outdoors because she's certain the air is poisoning her.

As a kid, she often threw up and had a headache after walking to school in southwest Detroit. More than three decades later, her eyes burn, her throat hurts, and her nose runs if she takes even a short stroll down the road.

"I don't walk because of the air. I go straight from my house to the car," Garrison tells Metro Times, sitting at a kitchen table with four of her neighbors who suffer from similar symptoms when they're exposed to the toxic air.

Garrison is among more than 7,000 people who live in 48217 — the most polluted ZIP code in Michigan. 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.

click to enlarge The Tri-Cities. - Tom Carlson
Tom Carlson
The Tri-Cities.

More than three dozen pollution-spewing facilities are scattered across 48217 and neighboring River Rouge and Ecorse — an area that residents call the Tri-Cities. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) considers the area a non-attainment zone because of dangerous levels of sulfur dioxide — a known contributor to asthma — and ozone that exceeds what's permitted under the Clean Air Act. Toxic chemicals such as benzene, hydrogen cyanide, and chromium also permeate the air and can be deadly. Hydrogen cyanide, a byproduct of processing crude oil, was used in concentrated forms by the Nazis to kill prisoners in death camps. Even low levels of hydrogen cyanide can cause headaches, nausea, breathing trouble, and chest pain.

The Tri-Cities are predominantly Black and low-income, with a sizable Hispanic population. Residents suffer from disproportionately high rates of asthma, cancer, brain damage, heart disease, respiratory problems, miscarriages, birth defects, and cognitive impairments — all of which are tied to air pollution. Just a brief exposure to many of the emissions can cause shortness of breath, coughing, sore throat, a runny nose, and vomiting.

The University of Michigan School of Public Health estimates that air pollution kills more than 650 Detroiters a year — 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.

"The health impact from air pollution in Detroit is substantial," the researchers wrote in a report titled "Working Together to Improve Detroit's Air," adding that "the impacts of poor air quality disproportionately fall on poor and minority populations."

"The census tracts in the Detroit metropolitan area with higher levels of air pollution are also more likely to be home to residents who are more vulnerable to adverse health effects associated with those exposures," the report states.

Garrison, who says she can't walk outside without getting nauseated, suspects the toxic air is behind her and her family's health problems. She had two miscarriages, and her only son struggles with learning problems. Her two younger brothers have thyroid conditions and learning disabilities, both of which are linked to industrial pollution. Garrison's friend died from cancer just a year after graduating from high school in 1980.

"It's a constant struggle," she says.

click to enlarge Struggling to breathe in 48217, Michigan’s most toxic ZIP code
Steve Neavling

The nightmare begins

It wasn't always like this. In the mid-20th century, the Tri-Cities was a working-class community teeming with Black-owned grocery stores, restaurants, hotels, banks, pharmacies, flower shops, car dealers, and even a hospital. Unlike many areas of Detroit, large sections of the Tri-Cities didn't have racially restrictive covenants that banned all but white people from homes and apartments.

Drawn to the Motor City by the booming auto industry, tens of thousands of Black people fled the Jim Crow South and moved into the area's modest bungalows in the 1950s and '60, becoming first-time homeowners. For many of them, a century after slavery and still in the midst of segregated schools and neighborhoods, the American Dream was finally within grasp.

Yards were neatly groomed and dotted with strawberry patches, and apple, peach, and cherry trees.

"We had our own Harlem renaissance," lifelong resident Theresa Landrum tells Metro Times. "It used to be a utopia."

In 1967, Jacqueline Smith and her husband moved from West Virginia to a bungalow built for military veterans on Ethel, a few blocks from Marathon Oil, a small outpost that over the next few decades grew into one of the nation's largest pollution-belching refineries. They raised three children.

"We had a lot of opportunities," Smith recalls. "We had good jobs and a nice house. Everything we needed was right here."

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-Cities 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.

In the mid-1960s, the construction of I-75 split 48217 in half, plowing through neighborhoods and Black-owned businesses. Today, I-75 is a congested, eight-lane highway used by 100,000 cars and diesel-powered semi-trucks a day, choking the area with nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, carbon monoxide, benzene, and other harmful emissions known to cause serious health problems, such as asthma, impaired lung function, cardiovascular disease, cognitive impairment, and birth defects.

But nothing was more impactful and encroaching than Marathon, the only oil refinery in Michigan, which dramatically increased in size for five decades. The refinery now sprawls across 250 acres in 48217 and produces up to 140,000 barrels of oil a day, pumping out hundreds of tons of nitrous oxide, sulfur dioxide, and carbon monoxide, according to EPA records. Today, the refinery emits 29 different types of toxins, which waft across neighborhoods and put residents at an elevated risk of cancer, respiratory disease, asthma, and liver failure. The refinery also emits at least eight chemicals known to cause cancer, including benzene, dioxin, and lead compounds, according to the EPA.

The acrid smell emanating from the plant is so intense that residents often feel nauseated inside their homes with the windows shut.

"At night, the smell is so bad it wakes you up," Juanita Patterson, who has asthma, tells Metro Times. "I get really, really bad headaches. It's really hard for me to breathe."

Gone are the fruit trees and vegetable gardens. Residents no longer grow produce because the air and ground are contaminated with hazardous substances. Soil samples at schools and parks have revealed dangerous levels of lead and arsenic, both of which are toxic and cause serious health problems, especially to children and pregnant mothers. Study after study shows that lead and arsenic can lead to learning disabilities, behavioral problems, and slowed growth in children.

University of Michigan researchers examined standardized test scores at Detroit schools in 2013 and found that children with elevated levels of lead performed the worst.

"The higher the lead level in the blood, the lower the academic scores," lead author Nanhua Zhang said in a news release at the time. "Even when factoring in grade level, gender, race, language, maternal education and socioeconomic status, we still found a significant impact of the blood lead level on the probability of scoring low on the tests." In 2002, Marathon broke ground for a playscape at the site of the former Jeffries Elementary School, which was demolished in 1991, and celebrated with hot dogs, chips, and drinks. But the playscape was quickly scrapped because lead, arsenic, and other toxic chemicals were found in the ground. A fence was erected to keep people out, but scrap metal thieves stole it.

In 48217 and nearby communities, the ambient air is so hazardous that for 12 days in December, the EPA issued warnings about high levels of ozone and fine particulate matter pollution, both of which are associated with asthma, lung damage, heart disease, and premature death.

"If I had known what I know now, I wouldn't have moved to this area," Smith, 74, says. "We shouldn't still be here. It's by the grace of God that we're still breathing."

click to enlarge Juanita Patterson and Jacqueline Smith. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
Juanita Patterson and Jacqueline Smith.

No way to flee

Like many of her neighbors, Smith wants to escape the toxic environment, but on a fixed income, it's next to impossible. It's hard enough trying to sell a modest house in the shadow of Marathon.

Two of Smith's sons have chronic respiratory problems, and her husband relies on a breathing device.

"His breathing is getting worse, and he has to take medicine to breathe," Smith says of her husband. "He feels trapped."

In 2012, Marathon offered above-market prices to buy homes in the mostly white neighborhood of Oakwood Heights in northern 48217 to make way for an expansion. But the same offer wasn't extended to Boynton, the predominantly Black neighborhood in southern 48217. Residents protested in 2017, holding signs that read, "Buy more homes." But Marathon didn't budge.

Marathon 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.

In early February 2019, a nauseating stench like rotten cabbage descended on nearby neighborhoods, and residents complained of vomiting, troubled or labored breathing, and irritated eyes and throats. The smell was so intense that some residents dialed 911 in a panic, afraid the stench may be from a dangerous chemical. According to the EPA, the plant emitted more than 100 pounds of hydrogen sulfide and more than 500 pounds of sulfur dioxide after a gas flare malfunctioned and a propane line ruptured. Marathon said the stench likely came from methyl mercaptan, a flammable chemical that can cause headaches, nausea, vomiting, and respiratory distress, according to the federal Agency for Toxic Substances & Disease Registry.

Six residents filed a complaint with the Michigan Department of Civil Rights, saying the city of Detroit failed to warn residents about the potential harm. Conversely, the neighboring cities of Dearborn and Melvindale informed residents about the incident, according to the complaint.

"Detroit is a majority-minority city and the residents of Detroit were not warned by the City of Detroit or the Detroit Police Department," the complaint reads.

Since 2012, the state has fielded hundreds of complaints against Marathon. 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.

Despite resistance from residents and years of complaints about pollution, the cash-strapped city of Detroit helped Marathon expand its operations in 2007 with a $175-million tax break. Marathon pledged to hire more Detroiters. But in 2014, Marathon officials told council members the refinery only hired 15 additional Detroiters as a result of the expansion. Of the 514 total jobs at Marathon, only 30 went to city residents.

Today, 41 of the refinery's 524 employees live in Detroit.

In a written response to Metro Times, Marathon said it has reduced emissions by investing in $350 million in environmental and safety improvements over the past 20 years.

"We have made this dramatic reduction in emissions at the same time that we have grown the refinery's operations, by replacing outdated equipment and installing state-of-the-art emission-reducing equipment," says Chris Kozak, advanced communications specialist for Marathon. "The Detroit Refinery consistently operates far below our permitted emission standards."

Kozak adds, "The Detroit Refinery strives to be responsible and respectful to all of our neighbors."

To gather input from the public, Kozak said Marathon formed the Citizens Advisory Panel of more than 24 community members who meet regularly for a "free exchange of ideas, concerns, and conversation."

Marathon also contributed $2 million toward the renovation of the Kemeny Recreation Center and routinely pitches in for events, backpacks, school supplies, and winter coats for residents. The Sierra Club is urging Marathon to pay for air-filtration systems in nearby homes and schools, but no agreement has been reached yet.

click to enlarge A park in the shadow of Marathon's oil refinery. - Steve Neavling
Steve Neavling
A park in the shadow of Marathon's oil refinery.

Cancer on every block

In 2007, residents noticed an alarming trend: A lot of people were dying of cancer.

"Almost every home we visited had someone who had cancer or someone who had died of cancer," says lifelong resident Rhonda Anderson. "The number was off the charts. We figured something wasn't right."

On some blocks, cancer had claimed the lives of 10 or more people. On a single block on Bassett Street between Downing and Miami, the number was 17.

That same year, Landrum was diagnosed with cancer. Both of her parents died of cancer, as did at least eight people on her block.

"Sometimes we had three funerals a week," Landrum tells Metro Times.

Residents 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.

Anderson and others say the data fell on deaf ears. At the least, they expected a follow-up study by experts.

"But no one listened to us," Anderson says. "We've been screaming, begging, and crying."

In April, Anderson was diagnosed with cancer. She has grown accustomed to health problems. When she was born, she weighed just 3 pounds. She developed childhood asthma and still has trouble breathing.

Two years after her father retired from a nearby steel mill, Anderson says he died from a lung disease caused by inhaling coal dust.

Breathing is a common struggle for Delores Leonard, a lifelong resident whose asthma is so bad she keeps an inhaler in her purse, kitchen table, and nightstand.

"You can barely breathe sometimes," Leonard tells Metro Times. "We live in a war zone."

For residents like Anderson, Landrum, and Leonard, the fight against the polluters is personal. It's about life or death.

"We are so organized," says Anderson, who is now a regional organizing manager for the Sierra Club. "It's out of sheer necessity. You have to fight back. It's a matter of survival."

They have organized their neighborhoods, researched the impact of chemical exposures, tested the air with their own monitoring equipment, lobbied lawmakers, spoke up to the media and at public hearings, and even began negotiating with the companies.

"You have to decide whether you want to live in fear or whether you want to get out and advocate for a better quality of life," Landrum says.

Tired of the lack of action, the residents-turned-activists secured funding to monitor their air with the help of the Sierra Club and the University of Michigan beginning in 2016. The yearlong study found excessive levels of sulfur dioxide and carcinogens such as naphthalene, arsenic, and hexavalent chromium, the deadly compound featured in the movie Erin Brockovich.

"I was able to look at each chemical and show which company was using that chemical and how much they were releasing," says Leonard, who has become so knowledgeable on the subject that she could easily be mistaken for a chemist. "We looked at each chemical and went into the database and found out what the health impacts were. What we found was frightening."

The funding has since run out.

One way to free up more resources for environmental protections, activists say, is to use the money that the state collects from companies that are fined for violating air-quality standards.

State Sen. Stephanie Chang, whose district includes southwest Detroit, introduced a bill in Lansing that would create a mitigation fund for communities.

"We have to make sure that money that is paid in fines [goes] into the communities that are most affected by poor air quality," Chang tells Metro Times. "It shouldn't be controversial. I'm going to push for it in 2020."

click to enlarge Struggling to breathe in 48217, Michigan’s most toxic ZIP code
Steve Neavling

Environmental justice

Landrum believes authorities would be more responsive to the health problems in predominantly white communities.

"Racism is so interwoven into the fabric of America. We don't need Jim Crow or slavery anymore," Landrum says, her voice rising in anger. "We got it right here — economically, environmentally, and socially. And then no one wants to address it."

Numerous studies have shown that Black communities nationwide are disproportionately exposed to industrial air pollution. African-Americans, for example, are 75% more likely to live near industrial facilities than white people, according to "Fumes Across the Fence-Line," a 2017 study by the National Medical Association, the Clean Air Task Force, and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

"The life-threatening burdens placed on communities of color near oil and gas facilities are the result of systemic oppression perpetuated by the traditional energy industry, which exposes communities to health, economic, and social hazards," the researchers wrote. "Many African American communities face serious health risks caused by air pollution. Higher poverty levels increase these health threats from air pollution translating into a bigger health burden on African American communities. And, companies often cite high polluting facilities in or near communities of color, furthering the unequal distribution of health impacts."

The study estimates that nearly 2,500 children a year in Detroit have asthma attacks linked to air pollution.

The Michigan Department of Community Health designated the Tri-Cities area as the "epicenter of asthma burden." The hospitalization report for asthma is three to six times higher in Wayne County than the rest of the state, according to the American Lung Association.

"The disparity in the asthma burden in Detroit warrants continued attention," states a 2016 Michigan Department of Health and Human Services study. "Public health efforts should continue to be directed to persons with asthma in Detroit to improve asthma control and prevent severe outcomes."

Common contributors to asthma — particle matter, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide — are plentiful in the area, spewing from cars and factories.

Nationwide and in the Tri-Cities, the disparity in exposure to pollution has not improved much between 2000 and 2010, despite overall improvements in air quality, according to a groundbreaking 2017 study by the University of Washington. Nationally, people of color were exposed to about 40% more air pollution than white people, the researchers found. "At any income level — low to medium to high — there's a persistent gap by race, which is completely indefensible," senior author Julian Marshall, professor of civil and environmental engineering, said in a press release. "It says a lot about how segregated neighborhoods still are."

To address the inequalities, members of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Environment held a hearing in September at the Kemeny Recreation Center in 48217, just a stone's throw from Marathon.

‘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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Emma Lockridge, a 66-year-old African-American cancer and kidney transplant survivor, was born in the area and said that families like hers didn't have many choices to live because of segregation in the mid-20th century.

"When they moved into these communities, they were restricted from moving wherever they wanted to," Lockridge testified. "They were forced to live near refineries. They were forced to live near polluting rivers. They were forced to live near the company DTE Energy, the largest sulfur dioxide producer in this area."

Lockridge's sister died of kidney failure before the age of 50. Her brother and father both died of lung cancer.

"For me, time is up," Lockridge said. "I want out of here because everything around me is just too toxic." U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib, D-Detroit, said she hosted the hearing to draw attention to the "disparate impacts of pollution on low-income communities and communities of color."

In an interview with Metro Times, Tlaib, who grew up in southwest Detroit, said she's committed to environmental justice and amplifying the voices of people who have long been ignored.

"Sometimes we underestimate the incredible power we have," Tlaib tells Metro Times. "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."

click to enlarge U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib speaks at a Detroit rally for 2020 Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders. - Erik Paul Howard
Erik Paul Howard
U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib speaks at a Detroit rally for 2020 Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

In 2013, residents were alarmed by the discovery of mountains of black ash, called petroleum coke or "petcoke," along the Detroit River. Petcoke is a hazardous byproduct of Marathon's oil refinery process and is so dirty it can't be burned in the United States. A company controlled by the billionaire brothers Charles and David Koch was buying the petroleum waste and selling it on the international market.

Residents spotted trucks hauling the ash without an enclosure to prevent it from blowing into the neighborhoods.

In a brazen act of civil disobedience, Tlaib, a state representative at the time, trespassed on the site to gather samples to be tested. The independent lab found samples of hazardous compounds, including vanadium and selenium, both of which pose serious health risks. Exposure to selenium can lead to bronchitis, nausea, headaches, shortness of breath, vomiting, abdominal pain, and an enlarged liver.

"I'm a public servant, but that doesn't mean I only pass bills," Tlaib says. "I knew I could change people's lives by getting it tested now.

"I don't function from a place of fear," she adds. "I function from a place of urgency."

In Congress, Tlaib launched an environmental-justice workgroup whose mission is to come up with solutions for cleaner air. One significant problem, she says, is that environmental agencies allow each pollution-spewing facility to emit a certain amount of contaminants, regardless of the level of toxins already in the air from adjacent factories.

Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, said that approach lacks common sense and poses serious risks to communities like southwest Detroit that have numerous polluters in a small area.

"They don't take into account what happens if you have a bunch of big polluting facilities," Leonard tells Metro Times. "It's flat-out not addressed. They aren't addressing the problem as a whole."

On the state level, Chang introduced a bill last year that would require an environmental impact study to determine the cumulative impact of pollution before a company gets permission to pollute.

"We need to look at the combined impact," Chang tells Metro Times. "Residents have a right to breathe clean air."

In early 2019, Gov. Gretchen Whitmer created the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate within EGLE to explore ways to combat environmental racism. To lead the office, Whitmer appointed Regina Strong, a longtime environmental advocate and former Michigan director of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign.

Strong says it's important to hold industrial polluters accountable through a "robust permitting, compliance and enforcement program."

"We are working to focus on ways to ensure that environmental-justice communities, including 48217, are receiving equitable protection through our environmental laws and regulations," Strong tells Metro Times. "As it stands today, the goal is to work with industry in the area and with impacted communities to make sure that happens."

Justin Onwenu, a community organizer for the Sierra Club, says politicians "have been kicking environmental justice down the road for too long."

"What does that say to children growing up in these communities?" Onwenu says. "What does it say about how much they are valued and what the government feels about them?"

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About The Author

Steve Neavling

Steve Neavling is an award-winning investigative journalist who operated Motor City Muckraker, an online news site devoted to exposing abuses of power and holding public officials accountable. Neavling also hosted Muckraker Report on 910AM from September 2017 to July 2018. Before launching Motor City Muckraker,...
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