The Blackest City In The U.S. Is Facing An Environmental Justice Nightmare

Written by Ann Brown
Detroit has a high number of Black residents — it’s considered the Blackest city in the U.S. It also has an Environmental justice nightmare. In this July 16, 2013 aerial file photo, the downtown of the city of Detroit is shown. Image: AP Photo/Paul Sancya

Imagine growing up in southwest Detroit and believing it was normal for the sky to be orange, not blue. This is what longtime resident Vince Martin thought as a child. He moved to Detroit at 3 when his family relocated from Cuba. Southwest Detroit, did and still does, have a high number of Black residents — it’s considered the Blackest city in the U.S. The 48217 district is now Michigan’s most polluted zip code, “where 71 percent of the population is Black and air pollution makes the sky look like it’s on fire,” The Guardian reported.

And at the center of the environmental crisis in the city is the Marathon oil refinery and its huge industrial campus. Martin, who is now an environmental activist, says the air quality in the area got worse and worse as the refinery grew over the years. Many of his peers have died of cancer and his younger brother David developed asthma and juvenile diabetes, both of which have been linked with air pollution. 

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“Like Houston, Texas, and Richmond, California, Detroit is a stark example of what happens when poor people of color live alongside environmental destruction,” The Guardian reported. 

Eventually, a lightbulb goes off and you see that your community is a sacrifice,” says Martin. “We’re actually Dr. Frankenstein’s laboratory in Michigan. How you just going to sit here using these people as guinea pigs?”

Community and environmental activists lobbied for years to shut down the incinerator. And in March 2019, the incinerator closed for good.

“In 2017, a report from the NAACP showed that in Detroit, 2,402 Black children have asthma attacks due to natural gas pollution per year and miss 1,751 days of school as a result. Across Michigan, the report showed, 40 percent of the population in counties that have a refinery are Black,” The Guardian reported.