Printer-friendly version Share:  Share this page on FacebookShare this page on TwitterShare this page by emailShare this page with other services

Environmental Justice and Community Partnerships

Regional Programs: Detroit

Detroit Skyline with Child The Environmental Justice Program goals are to provide organizing support to low-income communities and communities of color (when requested), so that these same communities can more effectively advocate to protect their health, environment and livelihood. With a 2.2 billion dollar Marathon Oil Refinery expansion in 2007 to refine dirty tar sands as well as an ancient dirty DTE coal plant, approximately 12 other polluting facilities, and persistent solid waste issues, the need for Environmental Justice in Southwest Detroit is important now more than ever. Sierra Club organizer Rhonda Anderson has successfully provided support to communities throughout the City of Detroit, but most particularly in the zip code 48217, where residents have become vocal advocates against pollution and on behalf of the well-being of their neighborhoods.

Blueprint for Downriver Clean Energy

Rhonda Anderson and EJCP intern Ryan Stock in Detroit created a Power Point presentation discussing energy production, the negative health and environmental effects from fuel acquisition in addition to energy production, and the incredible amount of energy lost or wasted during the processes of energy production.

The presentation details a number of alternative sources including onshore and offshore wind, geothermal, solar and biomass, and their energy potential for Michigan as well as the United States. Finally, the presentation enumerates the benefits of strategies such as green rooftops and urban forests, and discusses how current industries might be repurposed to provide support and jobs in a green economy.
Read more >>>.

Big Oil and Big Coal Make Us Sick

by Rhonda Anderson

Our Environmental Justice Community Partnership goals to provide organizing support to low-income communities and communities of color (when requested). These same communities can more effectively advocate protecting their health, environment, livelihood and communities. This is accomplished to a great degree in communities throughout the City of Detroit but most particularly the zip code 48217.

Residents work with EJ Program to hold polluters accountable
The zip code 48217 is a diverse community of residents - 85% African American, 10% White, 5% Latino. The residents of 48217 have long known that pollution is causing serious problems in their neighborhood. What has changed over the past several years as residents have worked with Sierra Club’s Environmental Justice program, is their recognition that they can take action and change their situations.

The story of Marathon Oil's proposal to buy out 13 homes at Liebold and Pleasant Street this year is a great example of this work.

Adrian Crawford had known for some time that something was wrong, seriously wrong in her home in the 48217 area of Southwest Detroit. In her basement, there was an overpowering smell; Adrian and her daughter were just not feeling well. Adrian was having a nagging cough, and her blood pressure was high. Many of her neighbors complained as well. They had gone before city council and complained to their state representative about the smell. They talked to anyone that would listen, but nothing was done and then...

On October 1, 2010 I attended a press conference called by the State Representative and held on the corner of Liebold and Pleasant. I cannot forget the unbelievable odor (hydrogen sulfur) coming up through the sewer holes; it was enough to stop you in your tracks.

Residents invited us into two homes where we were subjected to odors so strong they drove us back outside, but not before I saw furniture with a yellow green growth and walls painted gold that had turned grey. Outside I passed a home with three small children playing outside. The mother was inside with a newborn infant in her arm. How could this be? We could not allow children to grow up with this and permit a baby, a new born baby, to breathe this awful odor.

Immediate action was needed. Standing on the street with residents, we placed calls to state and city authorities and did not take no for an answer. The immediate result was the water department flushed out the sewers on Liebold and Pleasant, followed by a community meeting to report on just how the City of Detroit had dealt with the problem of Hydrogen Sulfide coming up through the sewer lines on the street as well as in the resident’s basements and to consider next steps.

Following this meeting, residents took matters into their own hands with a tool they learned to use through the EJ Program. A number of residents had been trained to take air samples using buckets provided in a partnership between the Environmental Justice Program and Global Community Monitoring. A bucket was used to capture samples in Adrian Crawford’s basement, showing 20 toxic gases, including ethyl benzene, a product of oil refinement. The results set off a string of events that led to Marathon Oil Company offering to buy out homes in this area.

To date several homes in the Liebold/Pleasant community have been purchased by Marathon and others are in negotiations for purchase.

A Solution to Pollution Impacts for Some Residents

As recently as November 2, 2011 Marathon Petroleum Corporation announced “its intention to create nearly 100 acres of green space adjacent to its refinery in Oakwood Heights by offering to purchase all residential properties in the immediate neighborhood”. This is the same area that is home to the 2.2 billion dollar expansion to the refinery that allows the flow of sands oil from Alberta, Canada.

When Marathon Petroleum Corporation announced the expansion in 2007, nobody seemed to realize just how big the expansion would be. The marathon facility at --- acres, dwarfs the Oakwood Heights neighborhood, and is truly a site to behold for residents in that community as well as for all residents in the 48217, Ecorse, and River Rouge. Quoting Mrs. Martin of Oakwood Height, she “can spit on Marathon”. From the front yard of Mrs. Mounce, it is unbelievable how close the expansion sits to her beautifully well kept home.

Since 2007, residents of 48217 have worked steadily to increase public attention to Marathon’s impacts on their community. In 2010, the EJ Program and local residents provided a tour of the area to EPA Region Five officials, state officials and some media. The EPA performed real time monitoring of pollution from Marathon and other industries during this tour. Then, officials met with residents to hear concerns and answer questions. In late 2010, residents held a workshop at the Social Justice Forum focused on community impacts of tar sands oil production from mining to refining. Most recently, a tour of the 48217 community conducted by Rhonda and Vincent ---, a community leader, prompted significant media attention to problems at Marathon Oil, particularly as a result of a gas flare occurrence during the tour.

Now, for some residents, relief is in sight. Marathon officials have indicated that they would make offers to purchase 420 homes in the Oakwood Heights community, the area closest to the refinery. This buyout would be in addition to the thirteen (13) homes in the Liebold/Pleasant community of 48217 zip code in Detroit.

Campaign Highlights

  1. June 2010 the US Social Forum took place in our great city, bringing much needed attention to the many local environmental and social justice issues. Our Detroit EJ program worked closely with residents in the 48217 community to put on a workshop dealing with the issue of oil sands being piped into Detroit from Alberta, Canada. Residents here looked at the connection and similarities between communities here in Detroit and the indigenous community in Alberta where the devastating oil sands strip mining takes place.
  2. December 2010 Governor Granholm signed the Michigan Environmental Justice Executive Directive. The Detroit EJ program as part of the Michigan Environmental Justice Working Group helped develop the language of this order over the course of two plus years and is currently involved with coalition efforts to implement the Directive.
  3. Residents in 48217 have worked with Global Community Monitoring to create a local Bucket Brigade that captures air samples for testing. A bucket sample taken in a resident’s home in late 2010, detected 20 toxic gases (including benzene, a product of oil refinement) coming into her basement, that set in motion a chain of events leading to Marathon’s ultimate proposal to buyout homes subject to this gas pollution.
  4. In early 2011, Marathon Oil agreed to purchase 13 homes in the Liebold Pleasant neighborhood of 48217 area of Detroit. This decision came after Rhonda Anderson worked aggressively over the course of a few months to have state and federal agencies address the horrific pollution that residents in this area faced within their homes and after local residents took action to do testing.
  5. In early 2011 the Detroit Digital Justice Coalition was awarded funding for 13 media labs, with 2 labs slated for the 48217 community which is an active coalition member. Open Technology, another Digital Justice member, began installation of a wireless mash in the 48217 community that will allow community members to share internet access.
  6. In it’s effort to close down the Detroit Incinerator, the Zero Waste Detroit Coalition defeated the Incinerator owner’s effort to obtain funding from the city’s Brownfields fund in May 2011and prevented a subsequent attempt to obtain a city tax exemption.
  7. In August, 2011, the EPA held their Environmental Justice Conference here in Detroit. Again, another opportunity for the City of Detroit to have the attention it needs in order to shed more light on the many serious E J issues that are having a disproportionate impact on our residents. E J community leaders took part in telling of the Detroit Story. Residents also had a very effective role in the Southwest Tour, which tour attendees indicated was insightful.

About the Organizer

Rhonda Anderson came of age in Detroit during the '60s and remembers it all like yesterday: the assassinations, the Black Panthers, Vietnam, riots, tanks rolling through her neighborhood.

"The day Martin Luther King was killed, I saw this huge black cloud coming down the street. It was kids from one high school coming to gather the students at our school to join them in a march through the streets. The first person in the crowd was a girl. She had her fist raised and was yelling, 'Black Power! Black Power!' I will never forget that."

Since then, Anderson has worked for equal rights for blacks and women; delivered food, condoms and hygiene kits to prostitutes in her city; helped homeless girls find jobs or return to school. She was part of the effort to shut down a polluting incinerator, and then worked in a juvenile detention center where most of the inmates are black. It occurred to her that many Detroit youth show the effects of growing up in a toxic environment - a sad fact she's working to change by, for instance, getting industrial sites cleaned up.

"To me, being black has been a war," Anderson says. "I've always fought, always struggled against a power that appears bigger than I am. But I know I'm making a difference by organizing my community. People tell me so."

Get Involved

To learn more about the Detroit EJ program or to find out how you can help, email Rhonda Anderson at

Contact Us

Detroit EJ Project
2727 Second Ave., Ste 320
Detroit, MI 48201
Organizer: Rhonda Anderson

Photo by Melissa Damaschke.

Sierra Club® and "Explore, enjoy and protect the planet"® are registered trademarks of the Sierra Club. © 2014 Sierra Club.
The Sierra Club Seal is a registered copyright, service mark, and trademark of the Sierra Club.