by Ruth Breech, Program Director

Returning from a recent trip to Michigan, I keep mulling over the shocking devastation that is Southwest Detroit. Years of environmental racism are taking their toll on this 10,000 family community.  In a five page, two day, news spread in the Detroit Free Press, 48217 was recently deemed the #1 most unhealthy ZIP code in the entire state of Michigan. Cancer and asthma plague this area that is surrounded by an expanding oil refinery, steel mills, a sewage waste incinerator, salt mine and littered with secondary chemical plants.

The pollution problems did not happen overnight. Regulators have been asleep at the wheel for over 20 years. Michigan Department of Natural Resources and Environment (formerly the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality) has cut their industrial and investigating staff from 50 to 10. The agency complains about budget cuts, but has not raised fees on industry since 2001.

Zoning changes and industrial expansions have put the neighbors and industry in a way too close for comfort distance – across the street from each other. Residential areas are thrust against an area zoned for the heaviest industry. There is a constant chemical stench in the air.

This is a true “dead zone” from which neighbors need to find a way out.

However, communities living in the shadows of industry, suffering from documented health problems and property issues, have limited options.  They can pursue their civil and or legal rights in the following ways:

1) Coexist- Engaging directly with industry for reduced emissions, residents can set up communications about accountability. Check, Southwest Detroiters have done that.

2) Lawsuits- They can sue their industry for property damage. Health complications are trickier. Check, they have done that.

3) Government Regulations- They can work with local, regional and federal government on enforcing current regulations or developing new ones. Detroiters have continuously appealed to regulators. City Council is not likely to do anything about the issue. The state regulators are starting to pay attention and the federal US EPA is somewhat engaged on the issue. However, the promise of change can be far from actual change.

4) Shut down industry- Detroit residents are not interested in this tactic, nor do they think it would be successful.

5) Buyout and relocation- In extreme cases of devastating pollution, like Southwest Detroit, it is appropriate for the community to consider leaving. They can be relocated, or moved, to another community. The cost of this relocaiton is usually paid out by the industry, the state, the city or EPA.

Southwest Detroit residents are working and have worked for several of these options. Even with reduced emissions, there are serious questions about the safety of residents living so close to heavy industry.

Many are starting discussions about relocation.

48217 residents are grappling with some of the most dire issues  and in a situation where they are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Historically an immigrant, and then African American community, many neighbors live on the same street where their parents resided. Their roots are deep in Southwest Detroit. It is hard to consider leaving the place one knows as home.

Even if people wanted to leave, many cannot shoulder the additional costs of a move and a down payment on a different home. Home prices (because of location) are priced from $300-$3,000. Extra money is put towards hospital bills.

If residents do decide to band together and work for a buyout and relocation, from industry, the US EPA or Detroit City Council, there is no guarantee that this will happen or that they will be given a fair deal. Buyouts, made famous by Lois Gibbs and Love Canal, are all too rare. The last one in Norco, Louisiana was a long, hard fight, headed by community member turned Goldman Prize winner Margie Richards.

Southwest Detroiters have a difficult choice ahead of them. Do they continue to live in the most unhealthy zip code in the state and wage the daily battle for accountability and pollution reductions? Or do they, for the sake of their health, leave the place they call home for an uncertain future?