Emma Lockridge, an environmental justice organizer for Michigan United, began her fight against the Marathon Petroleum Corporation nearly 6 years ago. From the observation of her mother’s house, only a few blocks from the facility, Emma noticed a thick blanket of pollution covering the sky. It wasn’t hard to determine the source of the contamination that was partnered with an overwhelming odor that was so strong it was difficult to breathe. Emma had moved into her mother’s house to take care of her after her mother had fallen ill from the exposure to the nearby facility’s toxic releases. Since then, Emma has fought tirelessly to push for the relocation of her neighbors that are subjected to high levels of toxic pollutants sourced from the Marathon plant.
In 2011, researchers from the University of Michigan released a report in the Detroit Free Press establishing Detroit, Michigan zip code, 48217, as the most polluted area in the state. Today, the zip code still remains the most polluted in the state, releasing a total of 151,800 pounds of various air emissions in 2018 alone. Claiming 99.6% of those air emissions is the Marathon Petroleum Corporation.
Expanding 250 acres, the Marathon Petroleum Corporation produces an incredible 132,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Sandwiched between the Oakwood Heights and Boynton communities, the facility releases hundreds of pounds of sulfur dioxide, nitrogen oxides and particulate matter into the air, increasing the human health risk for respiratory and heart disease for the surrounding communities.
In anticipation of problems concerning a $2.2 billion expansion in 2012, Marathon presented a buyout program to residents located northeast of the facility. Residents of Oakwood Heights, a neighborhood with a predominantly white population, received a $50,000 buyout from Marathon to relocate to a less contaminated area.
The nearly 7,000 residents located to the south of the facility in Boynton, a predominantly black and low income community, did not receive such an offer. Why didn’t Boynton receive a buyout? Was it because they don’t have the complexion for protection? Regardless of reason, for the last six years, Emma has worked to make sure her neighbors receive a comparable buyout offer as those in the Oakwood Heights community.
Ms. Lockridge explains her approach to activism as unique. She states that when the pollution is at its worst, that is when she takes action and gets closer to the facility. She has put her body and health on the line for years to collect data and pictures on Marathon’s pollution. Some nights the pollution and odors are so intense that Emma has gone to bed wearing a face mask to protect herself from breathing in the contaminants.
Emma explains, “When I notice the flares releasing in the night, I will drive towards the plant to take pictures. When the odors are at their worst, I go towards the plant to document what is happening. It is my word against theirs and I have the documents.”
In addition to gathering evidence against Marathon, Emma spends her time organizing her neighbors for protests against the plant for relocation. She describes the conditions in Boynton as unlivable. As part of the expansion, the Marathon Petroleum Corporation expanded their operations to include the production of Alberta tar sands oil. The production of tar sands results in increased emissions of particulate matter and pollution. Emma says that even furniture that has been left outside has to be cleaned every few days to remove the black particles that will accumulate, evidence to what residents are breathing in everyday.
When asked if there have been any observable changes since she started her work, Emma says, in some ways, yes. Marathon has not agreed to a buyout but Emma explains that there have been some changes in the neighborhoods in Boynton. Houses have been deteriorating for years and some have even been abandoned, but the city of Detroit is on the upswing. With a new wave of gentrification, houses that were thought to have been abandoned in Boynton are now being occupied as people are being pushed to the outskirts of the city. The demographics in the neighborhoods are beginning to look more diverse as various low-income residents move closer to the pollution.
Instead of relocation, Emma has observed an increase in residency. A trend that is only bringing more people in proximity problem. No dramatic change has occurred to date on the status of relocation for the residents of Boynton. However, Emma Lockridge and her neighbors refuse to give up the fight.
“I will continue to fight until I die,” says Emma. “I have already been diagnosed with kidney failure, cancer and asthma. The fight has already given me a death sentence, so I’ll continue to fight until I’m dead.”