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Pollution and climate change threaten Michiganders, Africans alike

Emem Okon of Nigeria CBM   STEVE FURAY PHOTO

Emem Okon of Nigeria CBM

By Steve Furay

Special to the Michigan Citizen

The global issue of environmental justice was at the forefront of a recent community discussion in Detroit in late March, highlighted by the participation of two African activists working for climate justice. The talk, titled “One Struggle, Many Fronts,” was held at the Cass Corridor Commons and was sponsored by the East Michigan Environmental Action Council and the U.S.-Africa Network.

Emem Okon (Nigeria) of the Kebetkache Women’s Development and Resource Center and Mithika Mwenda (Kenya) of The Pan African Climate Justice Alliance joined Malik Yakini of the Detroit Black Community Food Security Network and Diana Copeland of EMEAC to shed light on the environmental concerns shared by Africa, the United States, and elsewhere.

While every region faces their own unique challenges, giant oil and resource companies continually threaten the existence of local communities worldwide.

“It’s not an issue of Africa,” said Mithika Mwenda, “It is a global problem that we have to solve ourselves.”

Mwenda has represented the Pan African Climate Justice Alliance at international environmental events like the 2012 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Doha, Qatar.

During their stay in the U.S., both Mwenda and Okon became aware of the environmental destruction taking place in cities and rural areas in the United States, and were able to relate their regions’ struggles to Detroit. They provided evidence that after decades of allowing natural resource companies to devastate their land, current environmental conditions — drought, shifting seasons, flooding and torrential rainfall, disease and polluted waterways — challenge the health and way of life for residents of cities and villages in Africa.

“Wherever there are these resources, they turn out to be a curse,” said Mwenda. “(W)e have been sharing with people and hearing their stories … from the United States of America and we have discovered the problems which we have in Africa are still in the strongest economy in the world. Little did we know that we have also people suffering in Detroit, in New York, in Washington, D.C.

“…(W)e have realized that we need to work together to save ourselves, we have realized that the impacts of climate change, which are in Africa, they are here (in the U.S.)”

Emem Okon has witnessed first hand the effects of the environmental destruction caused by oil companies in the Niger Delta region of West Africa. Since oil was first extracted in 1957, polluted waters due to oil spills is common, as well as toxic gas burn-off, called flaring, which sends dangerous chemicals through the air for hundreds of miles around. Death and disease from flaring are common in this region.

“People who have been involved in the non-violent resistance movement, their issues are not being addressed,” said Okon. “(The resource companies) are more interested in making profits than addressing the impact of their business on the people. So the problem continues; the situation has remained the way it is, and the government has not been able to regulate these activities, because the companies have become more powerful than the government.”

As the Great Lakes state, Michigan is of great importance to the environmental health of the Midwest region of the United States. Much research and development continues to be done both by natural resource companies like Marathon Petroleum and British Petroleum.

In March, the Council of Canadians’ National Chairperson Maude Barlow published a document titled “Liquid Pipeline: Extreme Energy’s Threat to the Great Lakes and the St. Lawrence River.” The document examines the production of carbon resources, including oil and natural gas, in the Great Lakes region, and the threats this industry poses for both Americans and Canadians.

Coast Guard Lake Michigan BP Oil Spill COURTESY PHOTO

Coast Guard Lake Michigan BP Oil Spill COURTESY PHOTO

Resource companies working with tar sands oil, much of which comes from Alberta, Canada, export much of the extracted bitumen, a thick sludge mix of oil, sand and rock, for refining in the United States. There are currently 55 U.S. locations for refining tar sands crude from Alberta, many of which are located in the Great Lakes area due to the process’ demand for heavy amounts of water.

On March 24, British Petroleum’s refinery in Whiting, Ind., spilled up to 1,600 gallons of crude oil into Lake Michigan. The Whiting Refinery is known for processing tar sands oil, one of the most toxic and environmentally devastating sources of oil extracted. The United States Coast Guard, the Environmental Protection Agency and BP have all worked to coordinate cleanup since the spill.

In 2010, BP also spilled over one million gallons of tar sands oil in the Kalamazoo River. Because tar sands oil is so heavy, most of the bitumen sank to the bottom, making clean up very difficult. The spill is still being cleaned today and the EPA has yet to clear the area, says Mike Berkowitz, Legislative and Political Director, Sierra Club Michigan Chapter. “Four years later, we’re still dealing with the consequences of this terrible catastrophe,” he told the Michigan Citizen.

The Canadian Council report also states since 2005, over 82,000 natural gas fracking wells have been opened across the United States. Many of those fracking wells also use the process of flaring, burning off excess gas as opposed to the more costly option of storing or shipping the gas. According to the organization Ban Michigan Fracking, as of last year, 53 high volume horizontal frack wells had been permitted in Michigan, putting at risk water and air quality in over 18 counties.

In 2013, oil companies were at the forefront of environmental news in Detroit after the April explosion at the Marathon Petroleum refinery downriver, as well as the massive piles of toxic pet coke began piling up along the Detroit River.

Now state legislators, including Thomas Stallworth, D-Detroit, have put together a package of bills that will give oil companies tax breaks to build more pipelines across Michigan, which Lt. Gov. Brian Calley signed into law April 1.

Okon explains the Kebetkache Women’s Development and Resource Center has mobilized women to be leaders for helping to clean up the region and fight the major corporations.

“The reason why we are focusing on women is because women are doubly oppressed,” she said, “they are oppressed by what is going on in the Niger Delta, they are also being oppressed by tradition and culture that does not really promote women leadership.”

Both Mwenda and Okon were encouraged by the interest in their issue amongst activists in Detroit, and hope to continue communication to encourage skill and solution sharing.

“It is not climate change, it is not an environmental problem, it’s not. It is a poverty issue, it is a development issue, it is a justice issue, and it is a moral issue,” said Mwenda. “We need to work together knowing that we want to save ourselves.”

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