Michigan residents decry environmental injustice at Detroit congressional hearing

Emma Lockridge with the Marathon Petroleum refinery in the background, Detroit | Ken Coleman

Emma Lockridge, a lifelong Southwest Detroit resident and cancer survivor, has endured the awful stench of environmental pollution for decades. 

“We grew up coughing,” the climate and environmental justice organizer for Michigan United told a congressional field hearing audience on Monday. 

She was speaking about her upbringing near the Marathon Petroleum refinery that she called “toxic.” 

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“This is no way to live.” Lockridge declared. “We have complained about this problem over the years. We have talked about environmental racism. It started from the moment that our parents signed deeds to our homes.” 

The plant was built in 1930. 

Emma Lockridge with the Marathon Petroleum refinery in the background, Detroit | Ken Coleman

Lockridge was one of several metro Detroit area residents who attended a U.S. House of Representatives hearing in the Motor City. U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.), chair of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on Environment, and U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-Detroit), the subcommittee vice chair, held the meeting in Southwest Detroit titled, “Environmental Injustice: Exploring Inequities in Air and Water Quality in Michigan.”

The effort examined air and water pollution in Michigan, with a specific focus on Detroit and Flint. Tlaib said she wanted to draw attention to the “disparate impacts of pollution on low-income communities and communities of color.” 

Witness testimony focused on the negative health effects of living in heavily polluted areas as well as community efforts to hold industry and elected officials accountable for past and current actions.

Rashida Tlaib
Rashida Tlaib

Tlaib talked about environmental pollution in Detroit and the ongoing Flint water crisis 60 miles north of the Motor City. 

“It makes me heartsick that the people of Detroit and Flint have been living without their basic rights, and that they have lost trust in elected officials’ commitment to preserving and protecting those rights,” Tlaib said. “Earning their trust back won’t be easy, but we in Congress are determined to make sure the reality of life in America lives up to the promise of America — the foundational promise that all people are created equal and all are equally deserving of a fair shot in life.”

Tlaib concluded her opening comments by saying, “This cannot stand. Fundamentally, we are here today not just to talk about clean air and clean water and equal access to our natural resources — we are here to remind ourselves what kind of country we want to be.”

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Rouda said it “makes me heartsick that the people of Detroit and Flint have been living without their basic rights, and that they have lost trust in elected officials’ commitment to preserving and protecting those rights.

“Earning their trust back won’t be easy, but we in Congress are determined to make sure the reality of life in America lives up to the promise of America — the foundational promise that all people are created equal and all are equally deserving of a fair shot in life.”

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Others providing testimony included Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising; Paul Mohai of the University of Michigan’s School for Environment and Sustainability; and Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. 

Shariff talked about the government decision five years ago to use water from the Flint River, resulting in severe lead contamination for city residents.   

“If there hasn’t been a long-term plan developed to fix Flint, how can you fix any other community?” she asked.

Ken Coleman
Ken Coleman covers Southeast Michigan, economic justice and civil rights. He is a former Michigan Chronicle senior editor and served as the American Black Journal segment host on Detroit Public Television. He has written and published four books on black life in Detroit, including Soul on Air: Blacks Who Helped to Define Radio in Detroit and Forever Young: A Coleman Reader. His work has been cited by the Detroit News, Detroit Free Press, History Channel and CNN. Additionally, he was an essayist for the award-winning book, Detroit 1967: Origins, Impacts, Legacies. Ken has served as a spokesperson for the Michigan Democratic Party, Detroit Public Schools, U.S. Sen. Gary Peters and U.S. Rep. Brenda Lawrence. Previously to joining the Advance, he worked for the Detroit Federation of Teachers as a communications specialist. He is a Historical Society of Michigan trustee and a Big Brothers Big Sisters of Metropolitan Detroit advisory board member.

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