Many of us have heard that the 48217 area code of Southwest Detroit was deemed the most polluted area in the state of Michigan in a recent environmental report. Residents of 48217 and Southwest Detroit as a whole have long suffered from disproportionate rates of cancer, asthma and other chronic health maladies and premature deaths which are no doubt related their close proximity to the city’s industrial corridor along the banks of the Detroit River.
Southwest Detroit consists of ethnically diverse communities like the largely African American community of 48217 and and more diverse communities of River Rogue and Ecorse boarder the largely Hispanic community known historically as “Mexican Town.” The health problems of these communities are only now being exposed thanks to the pioneering work of the local Sierra Club’s one-woman Environmental Justice office under Ms. Rhonda Anderson along with grassroots efforts of area activists like Theresa Landrum, Vincent Martin, Dr. Delores Leonard and many others. With entrenched and economically vital private and public industries in the area like Marathon Oil, Severstal Steele, Great Lakes Steele, the Detroit Waste Water Treatment Plant, The NAFTA Freeway (Interstate 75), the Detroit Salt Plant, Ajax Paving and the Ambassador Bridge (to nowhere) just to name a few, the work of protecting the environmental quality rights for residents in the area is a daunting task.
With all that history already in play, one of the area’s most recent industrial expansions and environmental challenges adds a new chapter. The situation came to my attention by way of Ms. Anderson and our class project for the Detroit Future Media video class. I am currently working on a documentary project alongside three extraordinary women of Detroit in Ms. Anderson, Dr. Conja Wright and Dr. Angie Allen.
The focus of our documentary are 13 homes (including the Bridgeview Church) on the block of Leibold and Pleasant in an area of 48217 known as “The Hole.” Residents say the community got that name because of its location at the edges of the city near what used to be mostly marsh lands.
“There was only one way in and one way out,” a former resident said in an interview conducted by Dr. Wright. Anderson, who grew up in Southwest Detroit’s River Rogue area said that The Hole always had a reputation for being especially rugged and a “tough neighborhood.”
No doubt that toughness serves them well even to this day with all they are up against. Many of the residents of the area settled there after coming up from the South after World War II. They made a relatively good living for themselves and pursued the American Dream by working in the various industries thriving in Detroit at the time. Although Detroiters of European decent held the vast majority of the jobs in the area, they increasingly abandoned the area (while maintaining the jobs of course) following the four days of the famous 1967 race rebellion.
During that time, further industrial expansions transformed the marshlands near The Hole. Today the area is surrounded on all four sides by facilities of Marathon Oil, salt mining operations and the city’s Waste Water Treatment Plant. As bad as things may have been then, the area’s environmental quality took a decided turn for the worse around 2007 when Marathon began a multi-billion dollar expansion of their facilities and the city of Detroit almost simultaneously broke ground on a new addition to its Waste Water Treatment facility with a new Waste Sewage Over Flow Plant. The city insists the simultaneous erection of both facilities is purely coincidental, but skeptics suspect this is another example of industry getting their costs subsidized on the public dime.
It’s no secret in Environmental circles that the purpose of Marathon’s expansion was to accommodate a new refining operation for one of the world’s most environmentally hazardous oil production processes known as Tar Sands Mining. The world’s largest Tar Sands mine happens to be across the Canadian border in Alberta where experts say the Tar Sands found their has the potential to produce enough oil capacity to meet the energy needs of the entire United States for over half a century. Some experts claim that the Alberta Tar Sands hold more oil than all of Saudi Arabia and at a time when Americans are clamoring for less dependence on Middle Eastern oil and the oil industry suddenly awash in enough profits (thanks to the record highs in oil prices starting also in 2007) to finance the expensive and environmentally controversial process of extracting the oil content from the tar sands, tar sands mining seems to be positioning itself as the lynch pen for the energy security needs of the worlds largest energy consuming nation. See this link below for details on the affects of the area.
It’s apparent that the city of Detroit and Marathon Oil have joined together to make sure that Chrysler isn’t the only thing “imported from Detroit” these days. Maybe the M&M comeback should stand for Marathon and Motown? Seriously though, Marathon’s Tar Sands refinery requires copious amounts of water. Check out these quotes from the link previously referenced.
“The extraction process involves using hot-water flotation to remove a thin coating of oil from grains of sand, then adding naphtha to the resulting tar-like material to thin it so that it can be pumped. Currently, two tons of sand must be mined in order to yield one barrel of oil.”
“The primary method used to process oil sands yields an oily wastewater. For each barrel of oil recovered, 2.5 barrels of liquid waste are pumped into huge ponds. In the Syncrude pond, 14 miles in circumference, 20 feet of murky water floats on a 130-foot-thick slurry of sand, silt, clay, and unrecovered oil. Residents of northern Alberta have engaged in activist campaigns to close down the oil sands plants because of devastating environmental problems, including displacement of native people, destruction of boreal forests, livestock deaths, and an increase in miscarriages.”
All this could put a new perspective on the recent move to wrest control of Detroit’s Water System from the people of Detroit. I’m betting corporate funding was solidly behind the campaign and evidently its paid off (pun intended). Being located near the world’s second largest body of freshwater sure has its advantages.
What’s happening in The Hole area of 48217 is that Marathon is currently pumping its waste water from the tar sands refining process to the city’s Combined Sewage Overflow (CSO) plant via an existing public sewer system that runs under Pleasant Street, which connects the two facilities. Residents on Liddesdale were suddenly bombarded with a toxic overflow of gases which started creeping up from their basements that Marathon agreed to buyout the entire street of Lidesdale which is closest to the WSO.
However, Marathon neglected to address the surrounding communities that run along Pleasant Street and only recently began making buyout offers to the residents on Leibold only one street over from Lidesdale despite repeated complaints from those residents, who had to conduct their own tests and get local activists and news outlets involved before their concerns began to be taken seriously.
Our Future Media project tells their story but it can only scratch the surface of what the long term affects of the tar sands refinery in Detroit will mean for the entire region. To Marathon’s credit, they are in the process of building their own pipeline to funnel its waste water from the refinery to the CSO. My understanding is that the new pipeline will run where Liddesdale used to be. Still, nearby Bridgeview Park was shut down only mere months after a grand opening and subsequently fenced off because of alarming levels of contamination discovered in the soil. This was all prior to the arrival of the refinery and the CSO, which was at one point at least lobbying for tax payer funding through increased rate hikes. (See the link below from a 2009 article)
The park is surrounded by several blocks of residential homes. Common sense says the entire area is contaminated and the residents need to be located. Common sense also says that residents should have good cause for concern about waste water from the process being dumped into the nearby Rouge River. That River flows into the Detroit River and beyond and questions need to be asked. Those questions also need to be answered. The Hole may be a very small part of what’s going on environmentally in Detroit, but it’s about time someone take a good look and see how far down it really goes.