Meet The People Fighting Pollution In Michigan’s Most Toxic ZIP Code

Dolores Leonard, 79, who lives in Detroit zip code 48217. CREDIT: PHOTO BY HEATHER ROUSSEAU, COURTESY OF CIRCLEOFBLUE.ORG
Dolores Leonard, 79, who lives in Detroit zip code 48217. CREDIT: PHOTO BY HEATHER ROUSSEAU, COURTESY OF CIRCLEOFBLUE.ORG

DETROIT, MICHIGAN — On Saturday morning, Dr. Dolores Leonard sat in front of a small crowd of people, watching a video about ZIP code 48217, the most polluted area of Michigan. The stories of odors, sickness, and constant clouds of dark particles were nothing she hadn’t heard before. She’s lived in the famed southwest Detroit ZIP code for nearly her entire adult life.

Looking at my community I wanted to cry…

But for one reason or another, something about the video got to her. “Looking at my community I wanted to cry,” Leonard, now 79, said. “Sometimes you just get so tried of fighting.”

The 48217 ZIP code is in an area of Detroit surrounded by industry: coal burning, tar sands crude oil refining, steel production, and salt mining. It also borders I-75, a major north to south Interstate Highway in the Great Lakes region. The pollution from these sources combined results in approximately 1.6 million pounds of hazardous chemicals released into the community each year.


The chemical releases result in serious health issues for residents. Wayne County, which houses the infamous ZIP code, has the highest number of pediatric asthma cases in the state. Also, 48217 and the three ZIPs that surround it have “significantly higher” rates of newly diagnosed cases of lung and bronchus cancers than the rest of Michigan, according to a state Department of Community Health study.

“The community is just inundated with all these polluting sources, and their primary impact is on people’s health and their quality of life,” said Rhonda Anderson, an environmental justice organizer with the Sierra Club who grew up near 48217. “Even if people are able to live life to 70, 80, what kind of life is that if the last 20 years you have cancer, cardiovascular disease, if you have asthma? And that’s what’s happening here.”

Tar Sands, Petcoke, and Coal

The fact that 48217’s residents are mostly black and low-income only compounds the problems, and makes them harder to solve. The area’s 8,200 people are more than 84 percent black, with an average household income of $54,706, more than $20,000 below the national average. The income level that describes the majority of residents is the lowest bracket — less than $15,000 a year.

While 48217’s problems are nothing new, Leonard, Anderson, and other Detroit-based activists have been working to try and fix them. But at a panel at the progressive political conference Netroots Nation on Saturday, the activists expressed that the environmental problems there sometimes seem insurmountable.

Even if people are able to live life to 70, 80, what kind of life is that if the last 20 years you have cancer, cardiovascular disease, if you have asthma?

“Just recently in the past month or two, I’ve had to step back,” said Leonard, a retired professor who has been fighting for environmental justice in her community since 2003.


There has been so much pollution to fight from many different sources, Leonard said, but fossil fuels have been the big players. Her community is less than a mile from Detroit’s Marathon Oil refinery, which refines Canadian tar sands crude from Alberta. The refining process creates a high-carbon, high-sulfur byproduct called petcoke, piles of which have caused swirling black clouds of particles over the region.

Petcoke is also being burned as a fuel source in Michigan’s coal-fired power plants, including one owned by DTE Energy that sits right next to the 48217 ZIP code. A 2009 study found that air pollution from Michigan’s coal plants is contributing to $1 billion in health care costs each year, though some state lawmakers continue to support it. One state representative even went so far as to propose altering Michigan’s definition of renewable energy to include petcoke.

Environmental Racism

In Detroit, fighting proposed laws, such as classifying petcoke as renewable energy, is nearly impossible, according to Michelle Martinez of the Consortium of Hispanic Agencies. This is because of the city’s financial emergency, which has prompted a law that puts city government is the hands of unelected emergency managers appointed by the governor. These managers have near-absolute power over the city, with the ability to supersede local ordinances.

“This is a racist law,” Martinez said, noting a large portion of Michigan’s black population lives in Detroit. “Over 50 percent of African Americans in the state of Michigan have no power to elect their local officials.”

Additionally, because 48217 is so poor, one of the biggest issues has been merely engaging and mobilizing the residents. Organizing to fight pollution in a disproportionately low-income community is particularly challenging because there is little to no internet access, leaving people uninformed and therefore dispassionate about community issues, according to Jenny Lee, executive director of Allied Media Projects.

Over 50 percent of African Americans in the state of Michigan have no power to elect their local officials.

Because of this fact, Lee and her organization have established the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition, which works not only to bring internet access to 48217 but to get residents to use that internet in a meaningful way.


“Merely closing the digital divide is insufficient,” Lee said. “In a community like 48217 … digital justice must ensure not only equal access [to the internet], but multiple layers of communications infrastructure, including access to emergency information, EPA air quality monitoring information, and promoting the recycling of that technology.”

Small Successes

In the last two years, Lee has worked with her group to establish what’s known as a Mesh Network in southwest Detroit — a low-cost way for multiple residences in 48217 to share one central Internet connection. The data shared on that network is locally owned, not housed with an ISP or on a Google server, which makes it easy for users to share information with their neighbors.

The result has been that the 48217 community is better mobilized on what it wants, and the surrounding communities are standing in solidarity with it.

“If we want to sit up and talk about what it looks like when a community has come to realize their power, 48217 is it,” Anderson said. “48217 is probably one of the better organized communities in Detroit.”

And though residents being better connected with one another may not seem like much, Lee insists that it is. “We need creative solutions such as digital justice just to be heard,” she said. “Being inundated with crisis requires a level of connection so people are in solidarity with each other. Then that amounts to problem solving on micro levels, and that eventually amounts to larger-scale changes.”

As the community looks to use their new-found connectivity to improve their quality of life, Martinez noted that Detroit’s emergency manager law might prevent their efforts to mobilize and petition the city government for meaningful change.

“We have to figure out how to act in a way that doesn’t mean petitioning our city council,” she said. “We need our city council and local representatives to be laying down in front of these trucks with activists to show the lack of power that we have.”