Life in Michigan’s dirtiest ZIP code

Some residents call the tar sands industry a threat to public safety, say stricter regulations are needed

Local residents protest at Detroit’s Marathon refinery in May 2013, after the Michigan Occupational Safety and Health Administration announced it was giving Marathon a safety award one week after the refinery had an explosion.
Emma Lockridge

DETROIT — Entering southwestern Detroit’s Boynton neighborhood feels a little like traveling into an idyllic, 1950s version of America.

“Every porch has chairs on it, and in the summer, everyone will be sitting out there, talking to their neighbors. It’s the kind of place where a boy would marry the girl across the street and then raise their own children here,” Boynton resident Emma Lockridge said.

But drive a few blocks deeper into the subdivision and that image starts to disintegrate.

Smoke stacks rise ominously behind the homes, and a strong odor permeates the area and irritates the throat. Residents say emissions from a tar sands refinery run by the Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum Corp. blow straight toward them most of the time.

Lifelong Boynton resident Denise Taylor has a clear view of the refinery’s flares from her bathroom window.

“We have watched them build a city over there. It used to be just a spot,” she said, referring to Marathon’s recent expansions, which the company says are necessary to cope with the increasing volume of tar sands oil from Canada’s Alberta province.

Residents’ property values have tanked as industry has expanded around Boynton, with many of the homes estimated by Realtors at $16,000 or less. That makes it difficult for people to leave even if they feel their health and safety are threatened.

“Keep building, but consider the people here,” Taylor said. “We’re getting sick because of the pollution.”

Taylor said that although the area’s air quality was never great, it got worse after Marathon switched from refining conventional oil to more tar sands oil, considered among the dirtiest fuel sources.

Raw tar sands oil is mixed with chemicals to allow the substance to move through pipelines. The resulting mixture is referred to as dilbit, or diluted bitumin. Companies don’t usually divulge exactly what is in the diluting agents they use, but most formulas contain volatile hydrocarbons like benzene, a known human carcinogen.

Neither Canada nor the United States has adopted regulations for the relatively new unconventional oil or done long-term health impact studies on the chemicals mixed into it.

The Marathon refinery has reduced its emissions by more than 75 percent since 1999, and its emissions are only a small percentage of the total pollution in the area around Boynton, Marathon communications manager Jamal T. Kheiry told Al Jazeera in an email. Marathon, which monitors its own emissions and reports those results to state and government officials, said it is in compliance with federal regulations.

Residents said they believe the refinery’s emissions are behind the unusually high rates of cancer and other illnesses in the neighborhood because it is the closest polluter.

“We want out of here. I want a permanent evacuation. I lost my mother from cancer, my dad from cancer, my brother from cancer and my sister from cancer,” Taylor said.

According to the Michigan Department of Public Health, consistently elevated levels of cancer and mortality rates from cancer were recorded in Boynton’s ZIP code, 48217, reported as the most polluted in Michigan. 

But the oil also brings much-needed tax revenue and jobs to the economically troubled state. Niles, a town in southwestern Michigan, was the temporary headquarters for Alberta-based Enbridge Energy’s contractor Precision Pipeline. The company moved a temporary operation there last year as it began a project to replace an older pipeline.

Enbridge brought in more than 1,000 people to Niles — a boon to the local economy, Four Flags Area Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Tyanna Weller told Al Jazeera. She only had only good things to say about Enbridge workers, who pumped more than $1 million into Niles before the company left town. 

But concerned residents aren’t arguing against oil. They are calling for stricter regulations for an industry they say acts with impunity.

Boynton resident Denise Taylor protests at the Detroit Marathon refinery.
Emma Lockridge

In February 2011, after neighbors down the street from Taylor complained of strong odors coming from their basement sewer drains, the Environmental Protection Agency carried out tests. The results showed that a cocktail of about 20 chemicals, including benzene, had seeped into the homes’ basements.

The EPA says being around petroleum compounds like benzene for a short period can cause irritated eyes, coughing, a sore throat and shortness of breath. Being around low levels of benzene for a longer time can harm a person’s ability to make blood cells and fight infections, and breathing high benzene levels over time can lead to cancer.

A letter from the EPA to Boynton residents told them the neighborhood’s sewer system, which transports industrial wastewater from Marathon’s refinery, contains “low levels” of benzene.

Marathon bought out the block of homes where EPA tests showed the presence of toxic chemicals. The company also bought out residents of a nearby neighborhood called Oakwood Heights, paying them above-market prices for their homes before razing them in order to create a buffer zone. 

Homes in Boynton are just as close to the refinery, and Lockridge has collected more than 200 signatures from residents calling for buyouts. But Kheiry told Al Jazeera that Marathon is “not considering any additional buyout programs.”

Marathon gets its oil via pipelines that carry dilbit through rural Michigan. Like Taylor and Lockridge, residents in the pipelines’ paths said they feel the industry has ignored their health concerns.

Enbridge Energy operates a pipeline that delivers tar sands oil to Marathon. Its line 6B ruptured in 2010, near Marshall, Mich., and spilled almost 1 million gallons of dilbit into the environment, contaminating the nearby Kalamazoo River. The spill was among the largest in U.S. history.

The company is working to replace the aging 6B in a $1.3 billion project that means eminent domain property seizure cases against dozens of landowners along the pipeline’s route through rural Michigan. Despite its flawed safety record, Enbridge has been allowed to continue expanding across the state. It also has a large cross-border pipeline project awaiting U.S. approval, similar to the proposed Keystone XL pipeline. 

Geese covered in oil near the Kalamazoo River after Enbridge’s line 6B ruptured in the summer of 2010.
Michelle BarlondSmith/Flikr

At the time of the 2010 spill, Michelle BarlondSmith lived less than 200 feet from the Kalamazoo River in Baker Estates, a mobile home park located in Battle Creek — about six miles downstream from the rupture site.

“My husband and I got home late that night, and when we got out of the car, we could smell it. It’s an awful smell like gas, nail polish, the whole nine yards,” she said.

“I felt an immediate headache, like an ice pick through my eye. The next morning, the smell was still there, and a neighbor popped his head out and said there had been an oil spill in the river.” 

In the days that followed, BarlondSmith saw her neighbors become sick. When she saw a small child in tears, vomiting in the street, she knew she had to do something. 

“I started yelling and screaming, and it’s been three and a half years, and I’m still yelling and screaming. I’ll be doing it … well, as long as I’m on the earth, let’s just put it that way,” she said.

With no authorities on the scene, BarlondSmith went door to door to see if anyone needed assistance. Years later, an elderly woman told her she had heard the knocking but was so ill from the toxic fumes that she couldn’t even get from her couch to the door.

It wasn’t until 10 days after the spill that authorities suggested that the residents evacuate. Enbridge did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment on its response to the rupture.

The EPA measured high levels of benzene near the spill site, but there have been no health impact studies for communities downriver. 

Memory problems, asthma and other respiratory problems, rashes, heart attacks, cancer and kidney issues are among the most prevalent illnesses BarlondSmith reported from interviews with residents along the river.

A cleanup crew near the site of the Kalamazoo River oil spill in July 2010.
Michelle BarlondSmith/Flikr

Since there have been no long-term health studies on tar sands oil and dilbit, it is impossible to know if the illnesses BarlondSmith said she has seen since the spill were caused by the oil.

But she said that Enbridge lied about the timeline of the spill, making her question the company’s commitment to the safety of Michigan residents. BarlondSmith testified at a congressional hearing in Washington after photographs she took of the spill showed Enbridge cleanup crews at work before the company publicly admitted there was a problem. 

A 30-mile stretch of the river was closed for two years while Enbridge tried to clean up the spill, spending more than $800 million. After authorities declared the Kalamazoo River safe, some residents reported skin rashes after swimming in it. They added that animal and plant life in the river all but disappeared. Residents began to question the safety of the river, especially in areas downstream that were declared safe.

Craig Ritter, an outdoorsman, and Chris Wahmhoff, a Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands member, both grew up on the river. It was Ritter who first discovered an unusual material on the bottom of the river while fishing last spring.

Ritter said that he picked it up and that it felt light and could be easily broken apart. The mysterious material was easily caught in the current when he dropped it back in, and he watched it roll downstream.

“Once I noticed it, I saw more. I see them everywhere along the bottom of the river now and buried in the banks,” he told Al Jazeera. He said he began to suspect the substance was corexit, a controversial dispersant used to grab oil  in the cleanup after the BP spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010. Corexit has never been tested for long-term effects on humans or the environment.

After the BP spill, scientists said that corexit could be deadly to humans and marine life. What’s more, when combined with crude oil, the mixture becomes several times more toxic than either could be alone. 

“These people are lab rats,” Ritter said. Not only does the corexit cause the oil to sink to the bottom, making it more difficult to clean up, but it also breaks down oil, causing it to be more easily absorbed into the food chain, toxicologists report.

Though Enbridge said it didn’t use the controversial dispersant, Ritter said he had samples tested and the results showed the Kalamazoo River samples matched samples of corexit found in the Gulf. The tests also confirmed the oil on the material was an exact match for Enbridge line 6B oil.

“If it wasn’t Enbridge, how did it get there? That’s one hell of a coincidence,” Ritter said.

Chris Wahmhoff of the Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands, wades into the Kalamazoo River in Plainwell, Mich., Feb. 26, 2014.
Renee Lewis/Al Jazeera

Twenty miles outside what Enbridge said was the “contained” area of the river, in Plainwell, Mich., Wahmhoff waded into the Kalamazoo’s frozen bank last week and broke up some of the ice. Within seconds, he pulled out a piece of corexit from the bottom of the river.

Though health and safety are some of the most immediate issues raised by energy industry activities, the use of eminent domain by a foreign company to condemn private American-owned land has also raised concerns for some landowners.

Carol and Tom Brimhall own a 38-acre property near Stockbridge, Mich., along the route of line 6B. They said that on June 7, 2012, they received a letter from Enbridge project manager Douglas E. Reichley offering them a “good faith written offer” of $11,872 if the Brimhalls came to an “amicable agreement.” Enbridge needed to replace the ruptured pipeline and needed some of their land.

“As an incentive to bring this matter to an immediate amicable conclusion, Enbridge is willing to pay you the total sum of $46,453 for signature on the amendment to the existing easement and a temporary workspace agreement,” the letter read.

“Enbridge believes that honest, fair negotiations with landowners is always the best way to acquire pipeline easements," Jason Manshum, Enbridge’s media relations senior adviser, told Al Jazeera in an emailed statement. “Eminent domain authority will be used only if a mutually reasonable agreement cannot be reached.” Because the Brimhalls didn’t agree to the deal, Enbridge filed a lawsuit on June 28, 2012.

“The judge basically said, ‘I’m not going to argue with what the public utility company said it needs. We'll let you do what you want,’” Tom Brimhall said. Regulatory approval was given to Enbridge on May 24, 2012, by the Michigan Public Service Commission, which found the project to be in the public’s interest.

Three nonviolent protesters from Michigan Coalition Against Tar Sands attempted to stop Enbridge from working on the line 6B replacement by locking onto equipment near the Brimhalls’ land in Stockbridge, Mich., last summer.

Barb Carter, Lissa Leggio and Vicci Hamlin said the action was necessary to avert what they said would be the next disaster after the Kalamazoo spill and to protect the safety of their friends and family. They were found guilty in an Ingham County court for misdemeanor trespassing and resisting and obstructing police. They face up to two years in jail and will be sentenced on March 5.

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