04/23/2012 03:20 pm ET Updated Jun 23, 2012

Environmental Justice Work Still a Work in Progress in Detroit's 48217

This is the latest in a series of columns discussing the Environmental Justice Principles drafted and adopted by delegates to the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit held Oct. 24-27, 1991. This week we're looking at EJ Principle No. 6 which: "Demands the cessation of the production of all toxins, hazardous wastes, and radioactive materials, and that all past and current producers be held strictly accountable to the people for detoxification and the containment at the point of production."

DETROIT -- Around this time a year ago, I became acquainted with one of the more glaring instances of environmental injustice in Detroit. As you might guess, the situation occurred in Southwest Detroit's 48217 zip code area which a study by University of Michigan Professor Paul Mohai concluded was the most polluted in the state of Michigan and third most in all of the United States.

As well-documented as the environmental hazards of 48217 may be, there is no shortage of stories deserving to be told. One in particular I've been humbled to have a hand in telling has been the struggle of some 13 residents caught between the near simultaneous erection of Marathon's multi-billion dollar tar sands oil refinery expansion and the city's Waste Water Treatment plant in 2008. That struggle is examined in a documentary produced during the initial round of Detroit Future Media workshops entitled 13 in the Hole: A Story of Detroit's 48217.

A special community screening of 13 in the Hole will take place on April 25 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:45 p.m. at the Redford Branch Library located at 21200 Grand River. The documentary, which is still very much a work in progress, was co-produced with Dr. Angie Allen, Dr. Conja Wright and Rhonda Anderson of the Detroit Sierra Club's Environmental Justice Office. It takes a look at how residents on the blocks intersecting Pleasant and Leibold Streets were affected by Marathon's daily shipping of over 3,000,000 gallons of waste water from the tar sands refining process, through the public water main running under Pleasant Street and to Waste Water Treatment Facility's Combined Sewerage Overflow (CSO).

To their credit, Marathon has taken recent strides to enhance their environmental profile by announcing a major relocation agreement with residents of near by Oakwood Heights in November. The idea is to create a buffer zone around Marathon's production facilities, and it has been reported that 86 percent of Oakwood Heights residents are willing to take the buy out offer. More recently, the company announced the planned purchase of $2.2 million of equipment that Marathon says will remove 15 tons of toxic compounds and at least another ton of benzene emissions (one of the main by products of tar sands refining) in order to come into compliance with a 2008 Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) federal violation. The estimated date given for these purchases is September 30 of 2013.

These positive developments still do not address the four or more years Marathon has operated in the area while admittedly emitting tons of environmentally hazardous toxics each year in excess of EPA guidelines. What has been the harm done over those years to residents' health and property values? What about those citizens who live even closer to the facilities?

Further more, many residents of 48217, which overall has approximately a 75 percent African-American population, feel the Oakwood Heights buyout is a classic case of environmental injustice. A key aspect of environmental justice is that poor and people of color communities are typically disproportionately left exposed to environmentally hazardous conditions. Oakwood Heights happens to have around a 60 percent caucasian population, 30 percent hispanic and under 10 percent African-American. Oakwood Heights also happens to have a higher average income level than surrounding communities.

People who follow environmental justice issues in the city will recall the controversy that ensued in 2009 when it was proven that the streets and homes of The Hole were being flooded with the very same toxic chemicals used in the tar sands refining process. 13 in the Hole focuses on the struggle of residents to prove they were being so afflicted while Marathon, EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) officials all expressed skepticism. Their struggle eventually caught the attention of local news crews and city officials, but not before residents were forced to validate their own suffering -- and in one case even their own existence -- with the help of local community activists like Theresa Landrum, Roland Wahl, Vincent Martin, Delores Leonard, the Sierra Club and the international environmental watchdog group Global Community Monitoring.

Their efforts on behalf of Hole residents like Regina Smith and Adrienne Crawford, who are both featured in the documentary, is a truly inspiring example of ordinary citizens standing up for the most basic of rights. I can't think of better examples of everyday people standing their ground to do what is right by each other while up against some of the most powerful forces in our society.

"Some of the most important messages of the documentary are the clear connections that are made," said Dr. Allen. "First, no one should underestimate the experience of a community resident and investment in community residents should be the first focus of any sustainable revitalization plan, including the advocacy and mobilization of residents in nearby communities.
"Second, that the knowledge that just one EPA regional staff person can have that impacts the ability of a neighborhood to gain justice. Third, all politics are local. What the conversations are here will be the same that will take place in Wiliston, North Dakota, in communities engaging fracking and other environmental justice impact policies shared by city, state, and federal engagement."

That is not to vilify any player in this story. We all understand at some level the delicate balance that has to be struck between the need for economic opportunities, modern living, environmental quality and good health. Alliances are obviously being made among businesses like Marathon and governments at every level in hopes of finding that balance. However, all too often it seems that when sacrifices are being asked of any party; it falls on those who can least afford it. And in this case, people are being asked to pay for it with the health of themselves and their families.

The documentary also references a 2006 60 Minutes piece that explores the rise of the tar sands oil industry thanks to the discovery of unprecedented reserves in Alberta Canada. That was soon followed by a dramatic rise in oil prices around the world that coincidentally made the processing of these new reserves profitable, and made the multi-billion dollar Marathon expansion in Detroit possible.

You would think that with this sudden influx of liquidity that community members affected the most could be alleviated of their suffering -- if not compensated. Building a buffer zone around the point of production is a responsible move by Marathon, but not doing the same for those caught in the middle of it can only raise doubts of their commitment to being a community partner. While Marathon has generously offered up their help to relocate residents of the adjacent Oakwood Heights neighborhood, it's been interesting to see them fail to reach relocation agreements with the remaining residents of The Hole, who I would argue are much more acutely affected by the expansion of Marathon's facilities.

The documentary closes by asking two very important questions:

1. If it was necessary to close down the nearby Bridgeview Park, which was opened with much fan fare in 2007 because of the level of mercury, lead, arsenic and other toxins found in the soil only a block away from The Hole, what makes if safe for residents living right across the street?

2. What about the larger implications of having millions of gallons of waste water pumped daily into the Rogue and Detroit Rivers, which eventually flow into Lake Erie? Marathon, the city and EPA officials suggest the water is being adequately treated, but evidence from north of the border suggests the protection of our rivers and lakes, which help make up the world's second largest supply of fresh water, are not something we should take our eyes from.

As residents of 48217 will tell you, they've heard those dismissive claims before and proven them wrong. Let's all pray the claims are right this time while at the same time continuing to do our part and demand accountability -- just as the residents of The Hole have done for themselves and all of us.