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August 20, 2013

Petroleum coke is toxic byproduct of refining oil sands.

The city of Detroit has recently received national attention for a concern outside of the usual reports on the state of the American automotive industry and the city’s financial woes. The Koch Carbon Company has come under fire for dumping toxic waste in the southwest section of the city. The company has created a massive pile of a toxic waste called petroleum coke (pet coke) close to thousands of residents in communities near the responsible Marathon Oil refinery.

In light of the public outcry in and around the city concerning health issues related to the byproduct of the four-story-high piles of pet coke, government officials have issued a response. Last Tuesday, Detroit Mayor Dave Bing announced that his office had put increased pressure on Detroit Bulk Storage (DSB), giving them a deadline of August 27 to remove the pet coke. The company had been directed to have the removal completed by August 9th, but failed to comply.

This issue in Detroit highlights the nuanced concerns associated with the field of environmental justice. When evaluating an occurrence like this, the prism of EJ challenges us to ask questions that seek to assess not only the environmental impact of such a negative externality, but also the ways different communities are disproportionately impacted. Who is actually impacted from negative outcomes of environmental processes? Who benefits from the operations of the offending company’s service? How are our individual rights protected? What’s the enforcement mechanism?

Community members of southwest Detroit who are subjected to the effects of the excess pet coke are refusing to allow their situation to become another instance of a corporation dumping toxic waste and receiving little penalty. The community is already surrounded by polluting industries; approximately one out of every four kids has asthma.

As Melissa Checker states in her case study of activism against environmental injustice in a community in Georgia, Polluted Promises, “Race, numerous studies tell us, is the most potent variable in predicting where hazardous waste facilities are located – more powerful than poverty.”

Southwest Detroit has a majority Hispanic population. Additionally, residents of this community have lower than average incomes and lower levels of education than residents of other sectors of the city. Community members have been adamant about the pet coke being removed, and refused to let the issue drop when DSB ignored their August 9th deadline.

In a recent interview on MSNBC’s “The Rachel Maddow Show,” State Representative Rashida Tlaib discussed hearing her constituents make claims for accurate recognition and protection from unfair treatment. She echoed the concerns of her district’s residents when she said, “We don’t deserve this. We may not be billionaires, but we have the right to breathe clean air.”

Luckily, it seems the rallying of the citizens in southwest Detroit has been effective. The company responsible is under pressure to cease and desist and DSB has been ordered to remove the petroleum coke from its current location within one week from today.

But the waste has got to go somewhere, and residents of communities demographically similar to southwest Detroit are much more likely to be selected as sites for the dumping of environmental toxins, and become victims of the subsequent health impacts.

This story matters. The people who are affected by the disparately sited dumping of toxic byproducts matter, and the tenets of environmental justice are critical to making sure that all of our citizens have equal protection.

Watch Rachel Maddow’s interview with State Representative Rashida Tlaib below:

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