Detroit's Sacrifice Zone

By, Christine Nobiss

What is a Sacrifice Zone? 
Detroit is a great and sad example.

From May 18-21, 2018, the 8th annual Extreme Energy Extraction Collaborative Summit (E3C) was held in Detroit, MI. This summit, which occurs about every 9-11 months is a “grassroots, frontline community-led initiative to create a space in which those fighting extreme energy extraction can develop relationships and a shared framework across issues, making our local work stronger and our collective voice larger.” (E3C) Often at this summit, there is a tour or some education about the local area in order to shed light on the issues the grassroots people are working on. For instance, last year, the Indigenous Environmental Network hosted a tour of the North Dakota Bakken Oil fields, where the oil for the Dakota Access Pipeline is extracted and where many man camps have caused turmoil within Indigenous and rural communities. This past summit focused on the major issues facing Detroit, which are the extreme industrialization of poor, mostly black neighborhoods, the depressed local economy which is causing water shut offs and a rise in communicable diseases, the lack of clean water and the air pollution caused by an incinerator that sits right in the middle of the city. 

The summit started off with the “Just Transition Tour” of Detroit. It was a tour of what is called the “sacrifice zone”, in zip code 48217 which is mostly made up of low income, black communities surrounded by over 80 corporate polluters. According to Robert D. Bullard, “Sacrifice zones are often “fenceline communities” of low-income and people of color, or “hot spots” of chemical pollution where residents live immediately adjacent to heavily polluted industries or military bases. Quite often, this pattern of unequal protection constitutes environmental racism—a pattern first challenged in the courts in a 1979 lawsuit, Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management...Bean was the first lawsuit to use civil rights law to challenge environmental racism...Sacrifice Zones graphically describes what life is like for people of color and poor people who live on the “wrong side of the tracks” and in “throw-away communities” whose residents receive unequal protection, if any protection at all; such communities contain locally unwanted land uses, or LULUs, and industries deposit pollutants just outside the factory gates.” (NCBI)

One of our stops was to DTE Energy and Great Lakes Steel, both of which sandwich Belanger Park--a recreational area for walking, boating, biking and with a pretty extensive playground for children. The 9.5 acre Belanger Park is part of a recent restoration effort attempting to make the waterfront area more attractive so the city invested $1 million to restore the park which was completed in 1999. However, Belanger Park has been around for a while, and Grandmother Emma Lockridge, a longtime resident of the area said that she grew up playing in that park and was constantly exposed to toxic substances in the area. She told us that “your zip code determines how long you live.” Emma suffers from kidney failure and non Hodgkin’s lymphoma which are common diseases in this sacrifice zone. In a talk she gave during the tour, she stated, 

“...and we were out there playing, on that playground, and we don’t know how long that lead or the deposits were there. I ate dirt on that playground, rolled in that dirt and so now I end up with kidney failure. I have over forty first cousins in my family and no one has kidney failure in my family….just my sister, just the two of us. Just the person next door to me has kidney failure. Just the person across the street from me who died of kidney failure. Just the guy around the block from me who comes to cut my lawn and is now going to dialysis everyday, who also played on the playground. (FB Seeding Sovereignty) 

Detroit's sacrifice zone is the third most polluted area in the country and the first most polluted in the state of Michigan. Basically, it is a frontline for exposure to a wide array of toxic wastes, heavy metals and air pollutants. For instance, DTE Energy is responsible for 80% the sulfur dioxide emissions in Wayne County, MI. And DTE sits RIGHT BESIDE Belanger Park, a place where families are encouraged to bring their children to play, a place where people are encouraged to “go for a walk”. And yet just a few lots down, thousands of seagulls regularly flock to eat the dead fish that float to the top of the river that flows by that park. The water in this part of Michigan is very polluted--Flint, MI, being a prime example. As locals fight for clean air, water and land, Nestle continues to take billions of gallons of water from the Great Lakes in the area each year. According to Freshwater Future, “Riding the bottled-water boon, corporations like Nestlé have set up shop in water-endowed states such as Michigan. Their handful of wells in mid-Michigan alone each pump over 200 gallons per minute, amounting to hundreds of millions of gallons per year.’

Being at Belanger Park felt like a dystopian future. Like a bad dream where everything is not how it should be. It is hard to comprehend the incongruity of such a project meant for the well being of a community. It is absolute hypocrisy and a perfect example of environmental racism where rich corporations and corrupt politicians would build a park to appease the suffering people in the area rather than buy them out in order to remove them from them from the toxicity they are subject to. And just to be clear, Marathon, one of the major polluters in zip code 48217 bought out a mostly white neighborhood, Oakwood Heights in 2011. Emma Lockridge was not lucky enough to get such an offer. Her house used to worth almost $100,000 and since reports have come out about how toxic the area is and the economic demise in Detroit her house is worth less than $10,000. She simply cannot afford to move, just like most residents in the area. Hence, why there are so many abandoned houses and buildings in the city. 

However, Emma and so many others in the area are not giving up and continue to educate and fight the powers that be in order change this deplorable situation. There are many people like her that are fighting for a cleaner environment in numerous ways. I had the honor of listening to Emma Lockridge, Lila Gabbil and Monica Lewis Patrick at a panel at the end of the tour and their words were inspiring. For instance, Lila said, “we can no longer make racism a spectator sport” and “water is a human right and should not be controlled by money”. There is a lot going solidarity happening in Detroit where people are building a brighter future through education, organizing and compassion. There is a lot to be done, but there are a lot of people doing it! Please help in any way you can.


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Christine Nobiss