Democratic Candidates Flake on Detroit Environmental Justice Forum

Most candidates tout a just transition for “frontline communities” like Detroit, but only Jay Inslee showed up to meet with residents. Four candidates backed out, and 15 others snubbed the event entirely.

Christine MacDonald

Seats sit empty for candidates who cancelled on a July 31 educational forum about Detroit's most polluted ZIP code, convened by Frontline Detroit, Climate Justice Alliance and other environmental justice activists. (Still courtesy of Climate Justice Alliance)

Marathon Petro­le­um Cor­po­ra­tions refin­ery lurch­es across 250 acres of South­west Detroit like a low-rise steel city of sil­very pipes and smoke­stacks. It looms over Keme­ny Recre­ation Cen­ter, where neigh­bor­hood chil­dren play, get­ting exposed to pol­lu­tion with every breath and every turn on the grass out­side. The refin­ery, part of the Ohio-based Marathon’s oil and gas explo­ration and pro­duc­tion empire, has a long his­to­ry of exceed­ing legal lim­its on tox­ic emis­sions, con­tribut­ing to what makes this ZIP code — 48217 — Michigan’s most polluted.

The fact that only one candidate showed up is “quite frankly unacceptable and unstrategic,” says Anthony Rogers-Wright, policy coordinator with Climate Justice Alliance.

We’re on the front lines of cli­mate change right here,” says retired auto plant work­er-turned-com­mu­ni­ty activist There­sa Lan­drum, emphat­i­cal­ly tick­ing off a list of indus­tri­al pol­lu­tants such as sul­fur diox­ide, ozone (which cre­ates smog) and oth­er tox­ic chem­i­cals that have too often been released here in quan­ti­ties that exceed the legal lim­its, putting the com­mu­ni­ty at risk for res­pi­ra­to­ry dis­eases, can­cer and oth­er ail­ments and devel­op­men­tal delays in chil­dren that can be linked to pol­lu­tion expo­sure. Lan­drum, a can­cer sur­vivor, said she’s seen too many friends and loved ones die of can­cer and oth­er pol­lu­tion-linked causes.

Detroit’s 48217 could be the poster child for the front­line com­mu­ni­ties” bear­ing the brunt envi­ron­men­tal expo­sures from heavy indus­try — com­mu­ni­ties often invoked by this year’s Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial candidates.

So a coali­tion of Detroit and nation­al envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice activists threw down the gaunt­let in advance of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial debates and invit­ed the 20 can­di­dates to skip a few posh fundrais­ers and vis­it 48217 instead to see the front­lines” for them­selves. A team of activists even crashed an Eliz­a­beth War­ren cam­paign event in Detroit to urge her to come.

After weeks of pres­sure, Julián Cas­tro, Jay Inslee, Beto O’Rourke and War­ren said they would attend. The Bernie Sanders cam­paign promised to send an emis­sary, Har­vard Pro­fes­sor and racial jus­tice activist Cor­nel West.

But only one can­di­date was there at the Keme­ny Recre­ation Cen­ter on July 31 to meet with res­i­dents and activists: Wash­ing­ton Gov. Jay Inslee, who has cen­tered his entire cam­paign around the need address cli­mate change.

O’Rourke, Cas­tro and West had pulled out at the last minute. War­ren had waf­fled and even­tu­al­ly canceled.

The fact that only one can­di­date showed up is quite frankly unac­cept­able and unstrate­gic,” says Antho­ny Rogers-Wright, pol­i­cy coor­di­na­tor with Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance, a nation­al umbrel­la group of cli­mate and envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice orga­ni­za­tions around the coun­try. Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance helped push can­di­dates to attend, as did Rep. Rashi­da Tlaib (D‑Mich.) and the Sun­rise Move­ment (which also joined the local orga­ni­za­tions that spear­head­ed the Front­line Detroit pre-debate ral­ly and march on July 30.)

Inslee not only attend­ed the meet­ing on July 31, he vis­it­ed the neigh­bor­hood three times, unveil­ing his Com­mu­ni­ty Cli­mate Jus­tice Plan in a July 29 press con­fer­ence out­side the Keme­ny Recre­ation Cen­ter, with the Marathon refin­ery as the back­drop. He also took a tour of the 48217 ZIP code. Once the area was home to even more indus­try, before the auto industry’s decline prompt­ed many com­pa­nies to pull out, leav­ing pol­lut­ed land behind.

Life in 48217

More than 8,000 peo­ple live in the 48217 ZIP code, pre­dom­i­nant­ly work­ing-class peo­ple of col­or liv­ing amid indus­tri­al prop­er­ties in gov­ern­ment-financed hous­ing and sin­gle-fam­i­ly Crafts­man bun­ga­lows. Many have nice­ly tend­ed gar­dens out front and children’s bikes lying on the lawns. This ZIP code and oth­er high­ly pol­lut­ed ones near­by were set­tled decades ago by African Amer­i­cans who moved into this iso­lat­ed area on Detroit’s south­west­ern lim­its from the Jim Crow South.

Grow­ing up here, There­sa Lan­drum watched as a fam­i­ly gas sta­tion expand into the mam­moth Marathon refin­ery that process­es 140,000 bar­rels of crude oil into gaso­line and oth­er prod­ucts each day. Envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice activists have sound­ed the alarm for years. Nev­er­the­less, Marathon has con­tin­ued to grow with the bless­ing of state and local offi­cials, while activist demands go unattended.

Marathon, which staunch­ly defends its oper­at­ing record and says its refin­ery con­tributes just 3% to area emis­sions, is one of 26 indus­tri­al oper­a­tions res­i­dents live with every day, accord­ing to a report by the the 48217 Mon­i­tor­ing Group. With­in 48217 and its neigh­bor­ing ZIP codes sit steel mills, a salt mine, a Marathon tank farm and DTE Ener­gy Co’s coal-fired plant, com­plete with the kind of coal ash stor­age ponds that have burst their banks and con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed water sup­plies with arsenic, mer­cury, sele­ni­um and oth­er com­pounds in North Car­oli­na and oth­er states. The 48217 ZIP code is home to more than half of those oper­a­tions, with the rest dot­ting both sides of Detroit’s South­west city limits.

Heavy trucks tra­verse neigh­bor­hood streets night and day, car­ry­ing away the tar sands oil from the Marathon refin­ery, slag from steel mills, and indus­tri­al waste from the myr­i­ad oth­er pol­lut­ing oper­a­tions. An indus­tri­al stench per­me­ates the air, a tes­ta­ment to the pol­lu­tion peo­ple breathe in night and day. In addi­tion to res­i­dents’ reports of high can­cer rates, a Michi­gan state report asth­ma rates are off the charts in Detroit, com­pared to the rest of Michi­gan; a fact Lan­drum and her neigh­bors know all too well through first­hand experience.

This com­mu­ni­ty mir­rors com­mu­ni­ties across the nation,” Lan­drum says. Black and brown peo­ple are being exposed to an enor­mous amount of chemicals.”

Walk­ing the talk

The 2020 race has seen unprece­dent­ed talk by would-be pres­i­dents about cli­mate jus­tice and mak­ing a just tran­si­tion” off of fos­sil fuels that will pro­tect work­ers and vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties of col­or. But the lack of fol­low through sends the oppo­site mes­sage, says Rogers-Wright of the Cli­mate Jus­tice Alliance.

It con­tin­ues the trope that maybe black and brown com­mu­ni­ties’ health is not as impor­tant [to the can­di­dates] as their votes, he says. We’ve seen some of these can­di­dates eas­i­ly go into coal coun­try in West Vir­ginia and major­i­ty white states and coun­ties” so, he asks: Why couldn’t they take 30 min­utes out of their sched­ules to meet with those on Detroit’s frontlines?

The optics alone [of last week’s no-shows] don’t look very good at a time when we are com­ing to grips with the fact that we have an epi­dem­ic of white suprema­cy and nation­al­ism in our coun­try,” said Rogers-Wright, who says ignor­ing front­line com­mu­ni­ties feeds into a famil­iar nar­ra­tive that poor and vul­ner­a­ble com­mu­ni­ties are not a priority.

Nev­er­the­less, envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice cam­paign­ers say it’s excit­ing to see many of the can­di­dates com­pet­ing for the man­tel of envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice cham­pi­on this elec­tion cycle. The mere fact that so many can­di­dates are not only talk­ing about cli­mate change but cli­mate jus­tice this elec­tion cycle is unprecedented.

Nick Leonard, exec­u­tive direc­tor of the Great Lakes Envi­ron­men­tal Law Cen­ter in Detroit, says he is grate­ful that the choice to hold debates in Detroit called atten­tion to the envi­ron­men­tal jus­tice issues fac­ing the city. But he cau­tions that a just tran­si­tion can mean a lot of things,” includ­ing who will get the jobs cre­at­ed to build a new renew­able ener­gy econ­o­my. While front­line com­mu­ni­ties are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly bur­dened with the indus­tri­al oper­a­tions and pol­lu­tion, they sel­dom get the jobs cre­at­ed in their com­mu­ni­ties by those same indus­tries. Whether that will change under a new pres­i­dent remains to be seen, he says.

Chris­tine Mac­Don­ald is an inves­tiga­tive reporter and author, whose work focus­es cli­mate change, envi­ron­men­tal sus­tain­abil­i­ty and green­wash­ing. She was a 2019 – 2020 fel­low with the Leonard C. Good­man Insti­tute for Inves­tiga­tive Reporting.

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