Growing up in southwest Detroit, Vince Martin thought it was normal for the sky to be orange.
When he was three years old, his family moved from Cuba to one of the black areas of town. At the time, discriminatory housing practices segregated the city. His Afro-Cuban family settled in the 48217 district, now Michigan’s most polluted zip code, where 71% of the population is black and air pollution makes the sky look like it’s on fire.
Specifically, the Martins moved to Boynton, a working-class neighborhood. The town sits next door to a Marathon oil refinery and its sprawling industrial campus.
Martin, now an environmental activist in Detroit, remembers the refinery being made up of “one or two tankers” when his family settled there in the 1960s. Now, Marathon is a 250-acre tank farm that emits so much air pollution it’s received 15 violation notices from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy since 2013 for surpassing state and federal regulations emission limits. (Marathon denies any wrongdoing, claiming it has reduced emissions by 75% over the last 20 years and only contributes to 3% of emissions in the area.)
But Martin saw air quality worsen as the refinery grew over the decades. He believes he escaped the worst of it in his youth because he traveled so often for sports, but others “weren’t so fortunate”.
At his 30-year high school reunion, it seemed to Martin that more people in his class were dead than living. He knew many had died from cancer. As a child, Martin’s younger brother David developed asthma and juvenile diabetes, both of which have been linked with air pollution. Every few days, Martin remembers, David was rushed to the hospital with respiratory issues. “These episodes kept happening every time he’d try to go outside and enjoy his environment,” says Martin. After a life of health complications, David died at age 45 from what Martin calls “toxic poisoning”.
“Seeing someone with such joy in life, seeing it stripped away little by little, it’s a terrible thing,” Martin says. “To be in a community like that and be exposed to those kinds of pollutants. It’s a sad story.”
These stories are common in the 48217. Four of the state’s top emitters of particulate matter sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxides, which can, respectively, cause respiratory issues, and create acid rain are located within a five-mile radius of Boynton.
The situation in the 48217 is by far the worst out of all the areas in Detroit, but environmental problems pervade the entire city. And in Detroit, the blackest major city in the United States, those problems fall disproportionately on poor communities and communities of color. De-population, white flight and the implosion of the city’s manufacturing industry have left behind vulnerable communities. These communities are now struggling, and fighting to survive.
We’re actually Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory in Michigan. How you just going to sit here using these people as guinea pigs?
Like Houston, Texas, and Richmond, California, Detroit is a stark example of what happens when poor people of color live alongside environmental destruction. “Detroit is a microcosm of the national and global crisis on climate change,” says Michelle Martinez, coordinator of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, which lobbies for a safer environment for the state’s most vulnerable groups.
Often, these communities are portrayed as hapless, or helpless. But OneZero spoke with four environmental justice activists in Detroit who have taken their own futures – and the future of their communities – into their own hands.
“Eventually a lightbulb goes off and you see that your community is a sacrifice,” says Martin. “We’re actually Dr Frankenstein’s laboratory in Michigan. How you just going to sit here using these people as guinea pigs?”
Environmental justice activists have been fighting for a healthier Motor City for nearly 40 years.
Donele Wilkins, a pioneer in the environmental justice movement in Detroit, is one of them. In the 1980s, Wilkins was an occupational safety worker who became part of a conversation to erect a new solid waste incinerator in the middle of the city. The people involved in building the incinerator, mostly white men, saw it as an opportunity for a new construction job, she says. Government officials and many citizens were excited about it as well: an incinerator, then thought of as a safe, cost-effective waste disposal method, could attract new industries. But the city workers who would eventually have to work in the incinerator facility, many of whom were black, opposed its construction. Wilkins was there to lobby for them.
“They had some idea that it would not be a healthy workplace,” she says.
One of the things that motivates me is my determination to make sure not another child dies because they can’t breathe
Wilkins, driven by the knowledge “that it was my people who live in the shadows of factories and are impacted by all of these environmental injustices”, lobbied to shut down the incinerator for decades. The incinerator was burning trash from Detroit, but also from suburban, majority-white neighborhoods like nearby Westland. Wilkins argued that known pollutants produced by the incinerator were linked to higher rates of cancer and respiratory issues, birth defects, and endocrine diseases. In 2018, a lifelong Detroiter named Kim Hunter, representing a group called Breathe Free Detroit, collected over 15,000 signatures on a petition to the Mayor to close the facility.
Finally, in March 2019, the incinerator closed for good – a significant win for Detroit’s advocates.
In 2017, a report from the NAACP showed that in Detroit, 2,402 black children have asthma attacks due to natural gas pollution per year and miss 1,751 days of school as a result. Across Michigan, the report showed, 40% of the population in counties that have a refinery are black.
“One of the things that motivates me,” Wilkins says, “is my determination to make sure not another child dies because they can’t breathe”.
Access to clean water, like clean air, is not a given in Detroit. For residents, the cost of water has nearly doubled since 2007. In 2014, the city began shutting off water to residents whose bills were more than 60 days overdue. By October 2018, more than 112,000 homes had lost access to water, and an additional 11,000 homes lost water for a week or more this year. “We’re talking about people bathing babies in bottled water,” said Gunn-Wright, the Green New Deal co-author, at an HBCU Climate Change conference in New Orleans this November. “People collecting rainwater to drink and to feed their children, to cook their meals.”
In 2014, software developer Tiffani Ashley Bell tweeted her disgust after hearing about the water shutoffs. A Twitter user responded, offering to pay a Detroiter’s water bill if she could pay it directly to the water utility. A lightbulb went off for Bell: that night, she built a website that connected Detroit residents who needed help paying their water bills with donors who were willing to help. That effort evolved into The Human Utility, a nonprofit that raises funds to pay the water bills of residents of Detroit and other cities whose service has been shut off. Since 2014, The Human Utility, which received startup funds from Y Combinator’s nonprofit program, has paid the water bills of over 1,100 families, mostly in Detroit with the help of over 4,500 individual donors.
“I thought it was a problem that we shouldn’t be having,” says Bell, who is now also a columnist at the Medium publication Marker. In 2020, The Human Utility plans to use crowdsourced funds to pilot a water subsidy program that will lower the water rates of 100 Detroit families. Bell hopes it will show the city that residents will pay their water bills, if the rates are reasonable.
There is no guarantee, however, that the supplied water will be safe to drink. This year, Wilkins was approached by a man who said he had been sleeping in his car with his daughter after she experienced lead poisoning from the water in their home. They were not from Flint but from Detroit itself, where lead poisoning has driven others from their home as well.
People don’t realize that the average life expectancy of someone living in Detroit and someone living in the suburbs is a difference of 10 or 15 years.
Lead-emitting facilities in Detroit are disproportionately located or moving to black neighborhoods, according to a 2017 study. Even after these facilities close, lead left behind in the soil remains dangerous. It’s especially harmful for children, who can experience behavior and learning problems, lower IQ, hyperactivity and slowed growth if they carry even low levels of lead in their blood.
Traces of lead contamination in young Detroit children rose by 28% in 2016 over the year prior, and not just because of increased testing, said Lyke Thompson, director of the Center for Urban Studies at Wayne State University. Experts point to lead in dust, paint, and soil as understudied culprits. In 2019, 500 “hydration stations” had to be installed in Detroit’s public schools so students could access water free of lead, copper and other contaminants.
“The fact is that we live in the shadows of countless brownfield sites and lead smelters … that used to crush and incinerate batteries from the auto industry that contain lead,” says Wilkins.
In 2019, Martinez and the MEJC partnered with the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability to create a map of the most and least environmentally just places in the state. The map aggregates public data of pollutants and contaminants, health outcomes and demographics in a census tract or zip code and assigns an environmental justice score to the area. It made plain with data what many already knew anecdotally: Michigan zip codes with higher concentrations of people of color and poverty levels, lower educational attainment, and other indicators of social disadvantage bore the greatest pollution-related burdens in the state.
It also makes the divisions in Detroit’s segregated geography, created by redlining and white flight, starkly plain. The environmental justice score for Boynton, where Martin grew up, is 78; in Oakwood Heights, where Marathon’s oil refinery is, the score is 80. Less than half an hour away in Grosse Pointe Shores, the richest neighborhood in Michigan, the score is 14.
“People don’t realize that the average life expectancy of someone living in Detroit and someone living in the suburbs is a difference of 10 or 15 years,” Martinez says. The creators of the map hope it will be adopted by state officials to monitor and act upon environmental justice in the state.
Detroit’s citizens are being choked to death by air pollution. The city’s water crisis is on the level of some developing nations
While the national discourse focuses on reducing greenhouse gas emissions and shifting to clean energy sources, Detroit must focus on immediate needs. Its citizens are being choked to death by air pollution. The city’s water crisis is on the level of some developing nations. Vacant factories have left behind toxic stains that will persist long after the refineries and factories have shut down. Detroit’s population has dwindled from 945,741 at the start of the millennium to 673,104 in 2017, and the city’s lack of preparedness for climate change suggests it will continue to crumble in the years to come.
And yet, Detroit’s activists are optimistic. To Martinez, the environmental situation in Detroit represents “an enormous opportunity to reclaim the labor movement, the principles of the civil rights movement, and to reclaim the modes of production”.
She points to the approximately 1,600 community gardens in Detroit, which have sprouted up in lots abandoned by people who fled the city after 2008. “That’s a local, organic, closed-loop economy that is working to feed our elders organic, affordable food every season,” she says.
As the city’s infrastructure disintegrates, its activists are dismantling Detroit’s history of environmental injustice and preparing for climate change by bringing green jobs to the city.
Though the fight has been arduous, Wilkins says that the incremental wins, like shutting down the city’s incinerator, fill her with the hope she needs to continue pushing for environmental justice for the people in her hometown.
“I understand the resilience of my people,” she says. “See, we survived the middle passage. We survived the worst case of human treatment anyone in this world can experience. We survived Jim Crow. We survived all the ugliness. We’re still here. And while I’m here in this moment, my job is to advance whatever needs to be advanced so that my people can be better off.
“I fight for the strength of the greater good,” says Martin. “I speak for the little kids growing up who don’t know that they’re going to have to deal with these issues in the future.”