DETROIT -- A fire at the Marathon Petroleum Corp. refinery here late last month caused little structural damage, but its timing could not have been worse for the plant's owner.
The blaze, which was quickly extinguished by the refinery's emergency personnel, occurred on the morning that U.S. EPA and advocacy groups were touring the plant's industrial neighborhood as part of a national environmental justice conference at a downtown conference center.
Billowing smoke from Marathon's gas flare safety system stood out against a slightly overcast sky, serving as a beacon for visitors who had come to see first hand the impact of industrial pollution on low-income and minority communities.
The opportunity was not lost on the Oakwood Heights neighborhood that has been fighting an ongoing $2.2 billion expansion of the refinery. The fire and subsequent evacuation of the refinery's contract employees -- it wasn't deemed necessary to evacuate the nearby neighborhood -- fueled the anger of about 30 protesters who made their opposition to Marathon known along the route traveled by the tour bus between the refinery expansion and Oakwood Heights.
Tina Morales, who has lived in the neighborhood 17 years, wore a doctor's mask and waved a small yellow sign that read: "Marathon is Killing Us."
But as she discussed her worries -- while at the same time urging motorists to honk in a show of solidarity -- it was clear that Morales is concerned about more than Marathon's emissions.
Less than a mile north of Morales is the Severstal Steel plant. Beyond that is a major production center for the Ford Motor Co. To the west, next to the Marathon refinery, is the Detroit Salt Co. whose mines burrow 1,200 feet under the streets. To the east and south are a massive coal-fired power plant, cement and asphalt manufacturers, and one of the city's main water and sewerage stations.
"I think it's all of them," Morales said of contributors to neighborhood pollution.
Trying to figure out which pollution source to be most concerned about on any day seems to be a daily part of living in Michigan's dirtiest ZIP code, 48217.
'We are on an island'
The 48217 ZIP code became infamous last year, after researchers at the University of Michigan and the Detroit Free Press released a report ranking postal zones by chemical releases. Researchers tallied scores based on EPA's 2006 toxic release inventory data combined with air modeling information.
Easily taking the top spot was 48217, whose toxicity score of 2,576 was more than 45 times the statewide average. Five of the 10 next highest-scoring ZIP codes border 48217.
Leslie Fields, the Sierra Club's environmental justice program coordinator, called the area that includes the 48217 a "sacrifice zone" for energy production.
The burdens of emissions from coal-fired power plants and the refinery, she said, fall on low-income and minority communities.
And while some industries like the salt mine grew up alongside the communities, more continue to crowd into the area, surrounding residential neighborhoods.
State Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D), a lifelong resident of southwest Detroit who attended the Marathon rally, said that in the three years since she was elected, six new air pollution permits have been issued in and around the community.
"We are on an island," community activist Theresa Landrum said. "We are separated from greater Detroit."
Landrum said she has no confidence that government officials care about her community. She sees evidence of regulatory indifference in the Marathon expansion that will allow the company to produce an additional 400,000 gallons of transportation fuel a day.
Landrum said she attended the conference to ask federal officials to get involved in 48217 and help residents navigate the confusing maze of bureaucracy that somehow never seems to lead to reduced pollution.
"Who watches over the state regulatory agencies?" she asked. "We are lay people dealing with these agencies and officials. When we get before our local and state regulatory agencies, they seem to be jaded. They seem to be all Caucasians, and we are all people of color."
Landrum said she feels like it is open season on her community.
"The 48217 is the most polluted ZIP code in the state of Michigan," she said, "so why would you allow more industry to come in?"
But more pollution seems to be on the way.
A new bridge to Canada has been proposed to be built in the nearby Delray neighborhood. Supporters of that project say it could provide a much needed economic lift for the area. Others, like Linda Pierce, a presenter at the EPA conference who runs a homeless shelter in the Delray neighborhood, are worried about putting even more heavy truck traffic -- and their emissions -- on neighborhood roads that already see plenty of big rigs.
"We appreciate the business of the trucks, but we also know what they bring," Pierce said.
Multiple reasons to worry
But besides blaming those who issue permits, it is hard to point fingers in 48217.
Although she attended the Marathon rally, Linda Chernowas, 63, said she doesn't really know who is to blame for her lost sense of smell, her reflux laryngitis and other ailments.
Marathon is an obvious target due to size of the expansion project and the fact that it is being undertaken to expand the company's ability to import Canadian oil sands, a fuel source that has become a hot-button issue in the environmental movement as a result of the proposed Keystone XL pipeline.
But while the Marathon refinery expansion project seems to have lit a long-simmering frustration here, several of those who attended the protest acknowledged that the refinery is not the worst environmental offender in the area.
According to reports submitted to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ), Marathon lags far behind Severstal Steel and the Detroit Edison coal plant when it comes to the production of nitrogen oxides (NOx) and sulfur dioxide (SO2), which cause acid rain.
In 2009, the coal plant produced more 4,341 tons of NOx and nearly 14,946 tons of SO2. Severstal produced about 13,564 tons of NOx and 537 tons of SO2 that year. And Marathon produced 377 tons of NOx and 95 tons of SO2, which put it more on par with the local wastewater treatment plant.
Marathon did rank near the top in the area in 2009 for emissions of certain particulate matter, a blend of dust and soot. But even then, it was still well behind Severstal Steel.
Marathon spokeswoman Chris Fox is quick to note that her company has seen a 76 percent reduction in emissions of so-called criteria pollutants since 1999, a testament to the $45 million upgrade in pollution controls the company implemented then.
At the Marathon rally, while some protesters were angry over the refinery expansion, they seemed to fear the Severstal plant.
Owned by a Russian firm since 2004, the plant has had several pollution violations in recent years and was hit with $900,000 in fines by state regulators in 2006. But problems have persisted and state environmental health officials sent the company new violation notices last year after residents complained about a metallic dust that began falling on the community.
Roland Wahl, 67, blames a recent bout of nosebleeds on Severstal and thinks the company probably also played a big role in his asthma diagnosis last month. Two of Wahl's daughters and two of his grandchildren, all of whom live in the area, also suffer from asthma. So far, his wife has been one member of the family to avoid asthma, but she has had three surgeries to remove cancerous tumors from her body.
But there are also those in the community who are not as convinced that the environmental situation in the 48217 is quite so dire.
Khalid Anaia, 43, moved to the area last year to open a Middle Eastern restaurant just outside the gates of the Marathon plant. He said he trusts that the regulators are doing their jobs and that the companies do not want to put their expensive investments at risk.
"I don't think they'd cut corners because they'd take an enormous risk with their reputation," Anaia said.
He added that the people who have lived in the neighborhood for a long time are usually the most concerned but he thinks he, his wife and 7-year-old son are less at risk of environmental hazards.
"The environmental standards and emissions standards have changed dramatically over the last 10 years, so I'm not as concerned," he said.
'Buy us out'
State Rep. Tlaib is trying to clarify the environmental and health risks in 48217 with a call for the area's first-ever cumulative impact study.
When industries apply for new air permits, she said, they need only provide data on how their own emission controls. But she maintains that a company's neighbors deserve to know what all emissions are doing to the air. When the state Legislature comes back into session this week, she plans to introduce legislation that would require any company that applies for a new air permit in disparate impact areas like 48217 to first pay for a cumulative impact study.
The legislation would allow MDEQ to deny or place additional conditions on any requested permit based on cumulative pollution levels.
That effort would represent a major environmental justice victory and would be welcomed by residents like Wahl, who believes that despite all the publicity 48217 has gotten since the toxic ZIP code report last year, "we're still at square one."
But other residents say they are weary of the fight and are just looking for a way out of 48217.
A symbol of that could be found in one sign waved at the Marathon rally: "Buy us out."
In the course of the company's expansion, Marathon has bought several commercial and residential properties near the plant, usually turning them into green space as part of a community outreach effort.
Fox noted that all of the dozen or so residential sales that have taken place near the plant have been the result of owners coming to Marathon and asking to be bought out.
"If we can reach an agreement on fair market value and they are in a position to move, they accept the offer," Fox said. "And generally speaking if it's a residential property, it's probably going to become green space."
Larry Bryan, who has lived in the neighborhood since 1967, says he is suspicious of the confidentiality agreements that sellers have to sign with Marathon, but he acknowledges that the effort is seen as something of a lifeline.
"Marathon is the only one who has the money to get the community out of here if they wanted to," he said.
So even though she was energetically waving her "Marathon is killing me" sign, Morales also hopes that one day the company might save her.
"If I could get a decent amount of money, I'd be out of here in a heartbeat," she said.