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Council of Canadians visits Detroit to support campaigns for environmental and water justice

Maude speaking in Detroit

Photo: Council of Canadians chairperson expresses our solidarity with the people of Detroit.

Council of Canadians activists from across the country, Vanessa Gray from the Aamjiwnaang First Nation and independent media joined with American allies for a Toxic Tour of Detroit and follow-up strategy discussion yesterday.

The tour included the Ambassador Bridge (the 10,000 commercial vehicles that cross this bridge on a typical weekday are a major source of air pollution for residents), the River Rouge (people living near the river experience asthma and cancer given it has been used as an industrial dumping ground for decades), the Detroit Wastewater Treatment Plant (which burns sludge and produces a noxious sulfur gas that harms people living near the facility), and the DTE Energy coal-fired power plant (that burns petroleum coke, a high-carbon, high-sulfur byproduct when oil is refined).

We also learned more about the ongoing disconnections of water services in Detroit (tens of thousands of people have had their water cut off if they fall $150 behind in their bills, a gross violation of their human right to water).

The tour allowed us to understand more about the different areas in Detroit, including 48217. About 1.6 million pounds of hazardous chemicals are released into this community each year. People living in 48217 and surrounding areas experience a high level of pediatric asthma and a significantly higher rate of lung and bronchus cancers. The community is also mostly black and low-income, which is not coincidental. The community has become a sacrifice zone for heavy industry in large part because of systemic environmental racism and the prioritization of profits over people.

Marathon Oil Refinery  Oakwood Heights 

Photos: The Marathon oil refinery. The Oakwood Heights residential area cleared for the refinery’s expansion into processing tar sands bitumen.

Less than two kilometres away from 48217 is an oil refinery owned by Ohio-based Marathon Petroleum Corp. This facility refines about 120,000 barrels of oil per day. And given a recent $2.2 billion upgrade, the facility is now able to refine bitumen or heavy crude from the tar sands, situated about 3,500 kilometres away in northern Alberta. In November 2013, the Marathon refinery started processing 28,000 barrels a day of bitumen from the tar sands. This tar sands enters the United States via the Enbridge Line 67 ‘Alberta Clipper’ pipeline and then likely through Line 6B, 17 or 79 to Detroit.

In March 2014, Al Jazeera reported, “Companies don’t usually divulge exactly what is in the diluting agents they use [for the heavy tar sands crude], but most formulas contain volatile hydrocarbons like benzene, a known human carcinogen. …Residents said they believe the refinery’s emissions are behind the unusually high rates of cancer and other illnesses in the neighborhood because it is the closest polluter. ‘We want out of here. I want a permanent evacuation. I lost my mother from cancer, my dad from cancer, my brother from cancer and my sister from cancer’, [lifelong area resident Denise] Taylor said.”

The expansion of the refinery to handle tar sands bitumen has also meant the displacement of people. The tour took us to the Oakwood Heights area where people and their homes have been removed, but where tree lined streets and yards remind us that a neighbourhood once existed there. In April 2012, Michigan Radio reported, “The expansion brings the company’s new refining equipment closer to Detroit’s Oakwood Heights neighborhood. Marathon has been offering to buy homes in this neighborhood to create a buffer zone between the refinery and other residential areas. Some homeowners in Oakwood Heights have signed on with the buyouts, others have stayed put.”

The Council of Canadians is committed to working with our friends in Detroit to bring economic, environmental and water justice to their communities. We oppose all proposed and existing export pipelines (including Line 67), support the climate science that says 85 per cent of the tar sands must remain in the ground to keep global temperatures rising more than 2 degrees Celsius, and believe that our own energy supply can be 100 per cent clean by 2050.

We also believe in the human right to water and sanitation. We support all efforts to ensure that Detroit residents have this right restored to them and that an affordability plan, as proposed by the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization, is accepted by the city.

We want to support the appeal filed earlier this month challenging the September 2014 ruling by Judge Steven Rhodes that there is “no right or law” to guaranteed water services. We profoundly disagree with Judge Rhodes’ ruling and think that it is a dangerous legal precedent that we are glad to see challenged in the courts.

And we reject the notion of communities as sacrifice zones anywhere in the world, whether that is with our new friends in Southwest Detroit, the Aamjiwnaang First Nation (which is surrounded by 60 petro-chemical facilities and where the average life expectancy is just 55 years of age), with our allies in Red Head who suffer from the pollution generated by the Irving Oil refinery in Saint John and who oppose its expansion of that through the Energy East pipeline, or with our Athabasca Chipewyan First Nation allies and other Indigenous allies directly impacted by the tar sands.