Southwest residents demand action in wake of explosion
By Patrick Geans-Ali
Special to the Michigan Citizen
DETROIT — Over 60 residents and community leaders called on local, state and federal officials to design an evacuation plan in wake of the April 27 explosion at the Marathon Petroleum refinery in the 48217 neighborhood.
State Representative Rashida Talib, Detroit City Council Member Brenda Jones and members of the Community Advisory Panel: Theresa Landrum, Dr. Delores Leonard, Jackie Smith and Tyrone Carter held a press conference May 3 at the Kemeny Recreation Center to announce the community’s demands.
“If Melvindale residents understood that they needed to be evacuated, why didn’t a predominantly African American community in the city of Detroit need to be evacuated?” Talib said. “You have to be honest. For the local residents to be completely ignored by their local officials downtown is unacceptable.”
The multi-billion dollar refinery, which processes tar sands imported from Alberta Canada into crude oil, is located in Southwest Detroit bordering the neighboring communities of River Rouge and Melvindale. City and Homeland Security officials deemed the response to the fire and resulting explosion to be adequate, while defending the decision not to evacuate Detroit residents because the wind was blowing in the direction of Melvindale.
“They said that they didn’t come out because the wind wasn’t blowing in our direction, but that wind can shift at any moment just like your mind and your opinion,” Landrum said. “That smoke went up, and it mushroomed all around. It went up, and it’s got to come down.”
Landrum drafted a letter to federal, state and local officials outlining the community’s concerns. The letter made three specific demands and requested a response within 30 days. The primary demand was for the design and implementation of an emergency evacuation plan involving cooperation between Detroit and the surrounding communities of River Rouge, Ecorse, Melvindale, Lincoln Park and Dearborn for the over 9,000 residents of 48217.
Marathon sits between the community and the rest of Detroit with the I-75 Bridge connecting the two. Residents are concerned that First responders from downtown Detroit will be unable to reach residents, and residents will be unable to evacuate across I-75 in the event of an explosion like the one at a fertilizer plant in West Texas that killed 17 people and injured 200 more on April 17.
“You look and see a fire over there, and you know that there is gas over there,” Dr. Leonard said. “You know they have that hydrogen plant over there with tar sands. (The city) does not have a plan. Homeland security tells us to stay in place. Well how many of the firefighters and policemen live in Detroit? We need an escape plan, and we have been asking and asking.”
Although no one was hurt at the Marathon explosion, residents feel now is the time to take the necessary precautions.
“I honestly think the city of Detroit was very lucky. If that air quality testing that was taken right away came back and said that the air was poisonous with things that would impact the public health, which I do believe was the case in Melvindale, they were lucky. This could have been West Texas, and they were not prepared to evacuate 9,000 in this neighborhood. Our Detroit residents were not evacuated and were not communicated with or anything.”
Also called for in the letter was the immediate repair of emergency sirens and air quality monitors testing for industry specific pollution in residential areas.
“When I go to the CAP meetings once a month, they tell us how much they expel into the air,” Smith said. “They say that we are not the only ones. I know we have BP, DTE and all the rest, but Marathon is the biggest culprit out here with this pollution. This is taking us out as a community. The injustice is that they are bringing in more with the hydrogen plant in Oakwood Heights. The ones that live the closest to Marathon will get the most pollution. That’s just common sense. It’s a sin and a shame what they are doing to this community. They are just killing people.”
Residents also took issue with the confusion around the classification of the incident by local officials. Publicly residents were told the incident was a level three hazard, which calls for evacuation of the area. However, Jones, who has been the only official to respond to the letter so far, indicated that city officials were told residents were not evacuated because the incident was classified as level two.
“Level three is combustible materials, heavy thick smoke and odor. Level four is these three and fire. There were all four, so we know that anytime anything happens, they are going to down play it,” Landrum said. “We have the fox watching the hen house mentality where industry is allowed to tell our regulatory agency what happens. They said it was a sour water tank that exploded. Number one: water don’t burn. Two: water don’t blow up. So, tell me how can you classify it as a level three? There is a disconnect with local residents and elected officials because they work with big business on big business’ behalf. They are working to protect big businesses.”