Dale G. Young / AP

Michigan’s pollution crisis shows black lives do not matter

Detroit’s most polluted and predominantly black neighborhood is on the verge of a health catastrophe worse than Flint’s

January 17, 2016 2:00AM ET

On Jan. 15, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette vowed to investigate the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, to determine whether any state laws were broken, resulting in lead contamination.

“The situation in Flint is a human tragedy in which families are struggling with even the most basic parts of daily life,” he said in a statement. “While everyone acknowledges that mistakes were made, my duty as attorney general requires that I conduct this investigation.”

Schuette’s announcement came a day after Gov. Rick Snyder asked President Barack Obama to declare a federal emergency in Flint and for disaster relief assistance. Flint has been overwhelmed by a preventable lead-contaminated water crisis.

On Jan. 13, Snyder activated the state’s National Guard to help with his office’s response to the crisis. State health officials are looking to determine if a spike in Legionnaires’ disease cases in the Flint area is linked to the city’s drinking water.

None of these issues came as a surprise for residents of Detroit’s Boynton neighborhood. The 48217 ZIP code is the most polluted in Michigan. The crisis in Flint was compounded after the state’s Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) repeatedly dismissed complaints from residents about dirty tap water. 

As in Flint, the DEQ has dismissed Boynton residents’ complaints about pollution and respiratory issues. Many of them sleep with surgical masks to block toxins from tar sand refining that engulf their homes daily. It is common for Detroiters to wake up with low-grade headaches; many rely on asthma inhalers to quiet persistent hacking coughs that are not from colds.

This is how we live in Boynton in 2016 — coping with irritating sores in the nose, constantly registering complaints to the DEQ about pollution to no avail, sharing dire news with neighbors about newly diagnosed health maladies — such as kidney failure, autoimmune diseases and cancer — and early deaths.

Boynton residents live with fear of early death due to chemical exposure from the nearby massive Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery, which in 2012 underwent a $2.2 billion expansion and processes filthy bitumen and tar sands from Alberta, Canada. 

The DEQ ignored numerous complaints about the refinery, saying, it “is in compliance with emission release numbers.” In fact, the agency may soon approve Marathon's request for new permits, which would increase emissions for several air pollutants, including nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, volatile organic compounds, small particulate pollution and sulfuric acid mist.

As Michigan’s leaders grapple with the horrific effects of lead-poisoned water in Flint, they must also act to avoid an impending catastrophe facing yet another black neighborhood.

Industrial smokestacks surround the Boynton neighborhood. “The average toxic burden score among Michigan ZIP codes is 56, and the middle, or median, score of Michigan ZIP codes is 18,” according to an analysis of pollution levels by University of Michigan researchers. “The ZIP code with the greatest toxic burden, 48217 in Detroit, had a score of 2,576.”

In 2011 the Sierra Club’s environmental justice program coordinator, Leslie Fields, labeled an area including Boynton “a sacrifice zone for energy production.” It is tragic that the DEQ continues to sacrifice public health for corporations interested only in improving their bottom lines and for the state’s tax revenues.

Boynton is already in nonattainment” for federal standards on sulfur dioxide (SO2), one of the leading causes of asthma and other respiratory diseases. The neighborhood has the highest rate of asthma in the state, and Detroit ranks in the top 10 among U.S. cities.  

This is why it is deeply troubling to learn that the DEQ is close to approving Marathon’s revised pollution permit. The proposal would increase SO2 emissions by more than 20 tons per year. Allowing additional SO2 emissions in Boynton, where children already cling to asthma inhalers, is preposterous. 

Boynton residents hoped that the Environmental Protection Agency would not agree to increase SO2 emission levels. After all, Michigan is under federal mandate to lower its SO2 emission rate. But we were wrong. The EPA has approved Marathon’s request, claiming air toxins will increase by less than 1 percent. The EPA says 770 lives can be saved annually by 2030 if Marathon removes the SO2 in its reformulated fuel, which necessitated the increase in emissions. In effect, the agency is sacrificing our lives for others’.

There is a racial component to Michigan’s ongoing woes. As with Flint, Boynton’s residents are predominantly African-American and low income. It is inconceivable to think that the DEQ and EPA would make similar determinations in a wealthy, white neighborhood and sacrifice their children. The underlying message is clear: Black lives do not matter.

The DEQ must scrap Marathon’s requests to increase SO2 emissions in an already polluted community. As Michigan’s leaders grapple with the horrific effects of lead-poisoned water in Flint, they must also act to avoid an impending catastrophe facing yet another black neighborhood.

Emma Lockridge has lived most of her life in Detroit’s 48217 ZIP code, home to an oil refinery and major polluting industries. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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