Marathon Refinery Fire in Detroit Another Sign of Environmental Injustice

marathon fire playground
© Playground in Detroit/ Oliver B

Last Saturday's Marathon Oil refinery explosion and fire was yet another dangerous, polluting event in a string of environmental injustices to plague the residents of the 48217 zip code in Detroit, which is unfortunately famous for being the most polluted in Michigan.

Last week, Mrs. Delores Leonard, a resident of 48217, was sitting on a neighbor's porch when she heard a huge window-shaking explosion. She saw a huge plume of black smoke and rushed home. She got on the phone to see if any local, state, or federal agency could tell her what happened. She heard nothing from any emergency officials.

Meanwhile, a nearby community that's not in Detroit -- Melvindale -- was evacuated by emergency officials. Yet the residents in 48217's River Rouge and Ecorse communities had no idea what to do, especially once the main route in and out of their neighborhood -- Interstate 75 -- was shut down due to the smoke.

According to an incident report that Mrs. Leonard later found, the Marathon fire emitted ammonia, anhydrous hydrogen sulfide, diesel, and sulfur dioxide -- yet no one informed the people in River Rouge or Ecorse nor revealed how much of those toxins were released into the air.

Residents continue to cause an uproar over the lack of information from authorities. More than 80 people from the neighborhood turned out for a press conference on Friday.

"They expressed their fears and sense of helplessness after learning of the explosion," said Sierra Club Environmental Justice Organizer Rhonda Anderson. "Residents heard and felt the explosion, they saw the fire and smoke, then saw their neighbors in Melvindale being evacuated but not them. What must it feel like to look across the street and see your neighbor leaving what looks like a major catastrophic and you not knowing what to do? All because your officials have not bothered to contact you and tell you that you should or shouldn't do something."

She said residents will meet again on Sunday to decide next steps.

Previous lawsuits and attempts to engage with Marathon required an emergency action plan from the company -- especially after it spent $2 billion upgrading its facility to handle the much more corrosive tar sands oil.

These communities have been exposed on a continual basis for years to upsets, emissions and fires due to the refining of tar sands and oil processes. Anderson added that even when small advances are made, the neighborhood’s vast dirty industries still loom.

"It's hard in an area with so much industry -- our wastewater plant here has 16 incinerators, and that's just the beginning," Rhonda says, adding that the neighborhood also has oil refineries, municipal incinerators, a gypsum facility, and much more.

All of these industries emit pollution, from sulfur dioxide to benzene,, all of which affects River Rouge and Ecorse residents, who suffer from cancer, asthma, and many other illnesses. The pollution and its effects are documented in a recently released report on the state of Detroit's environment.

The people living in 48217 deserve better. Although dirty fuels affect us all, some communities bear an unequal burden. We must transition to a clean energy economy that lifts all boats.

In the meantime, as Marathon in Detroit continues to refine tar sands oil, the Sierra Club joins with the residents of 48217 in calling on government agencies to carry out their mandated compliance and enforcement duties -- and not to rely on results reported by the refinery itself. We also join local citizens in calling for better emergency response -- which should include all affected communities -- after accidents like last Saturday's Marathon explosion.

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