The Swamp logo

Life Inside America's Most Toxic Zip Code: A Warning of What Happens When Democracy Fails

This is the terrifying reality of people who live in America's most toxic zip code... and what could happen to your hometown next.

By Ossiana TepfenhartPublished 7 years ago 5 min read
Top Story - May 2017


This innocuous number is a zip code of a town section so derelict, so toxic, and so blighted that locals no longer call it by its own name. It's just a zip code that is part of the Southwestern corner of Detroit - a city already known for its rough living, corrupt cops, and street violence.

As bad as most of Detroit is, locals can tell you that the majority of the city is nowhere near as deadly as 48217. 48217 is a small minority-majority community with high crime rates, extreme poverty being the norm, and a lot of social problems.

However, these factors aren't what make 48217 so deadly, nor is it what has eroded the community so badly. What makes it so deadly is the 1.6 million pounds of industrial waste released into this small area every year.

With 48217 being right next to a salt mining plant, a coal burning plant, a tar sands refinery, a steel production plant, and a major highway, it's easy to see why reporters who venture into the area tend to notice that there's a perennially strong odor in the air.

Locals say that they often smell the acrid smoke's smell change by the time of day, and the time of the week. Sometimes, there appears to be a strange kind of room-temperature snowfall that coats the homes, lawns, and cars of those in the town; it's lead-containing dust from the steel refinery.

Third world as this may sound, this scenario is one that the American residents of 48217 have been dealing with for years. Sadly, it's not looking rosy for the most polluted zip code in Michigan - especially when you think of how it all came to be.

"A Sacrifice Zone"

Detroit's time as the heart of the Rust Belt died out in the 50s, but it was by no means done with commerce. In fact, the city boasts a huge amount of factories, refineries, and power plants. Over the course of decades, businesses began to encroach on 48217's territory, slowly taking it over and eventually buying swaths of it to continue operations.

Eventually, the once-middle class neighborhood became a lower class zone. Somewhere along the line, business owners stopped caring about the locals there, and industry became unchecked.

Many more factories are beginning to get approval to get built, and recently, the state's Department of Environmental Quality greenlit Marathon Petroleum's expansion into the 48217 territory despite the outcry from the citizens who live there.

Sadly, the opinions and needs to the citizens in 48217 almost always fall on deaf ears. Local representatives from the area's Sierra Club have even gone so far as to call the 48127 zone a "sacrifice zone" for the sake of energy production and manufacturing.

No one who lives there recalls willingly stepping up to be a sacrificial lamb on the altar of Big Business, though.

"There's no cure for that."

The air's bitter, acrid, and often chokingly sour quality is one that has become a regular problem in the community. Scientists and environmentalists often are appalled at the post-apocalyptic scenario here.

In one "Toxic Tour," scientist Jennifer Sass recalled the following of her visit to 48217:

"The acrid stench of industrial sulfur fumes was so strong that we could taste it, and it was giving us headaches. Maybe that was from Marathon refinery’s ‘tank farm’ of storage tanks right across the highway from the play field.

According to one local who has lived here since the 60s, her children used to suffer from incurable nose bleeds.

""Doctors would ask if we lived near a refinery. I said, 'Yes.' He said, 'It's what you're breathing. There's no medicine for that.'" - Jackie Smith, 48217 resident.

Annually, Michigan's coal burning plants cost the state $1 billion in healthcare costs. The increased cancer rates also likely cost several million more annually, just in 48217 and the area's outskirts alone.

Despite the outcry and the obvious dangers, the local government has no interest in hearing what they have to say. Money, and corporate greed, have taken a very clear front seat to the health of people who live in the area.

Outrageously, Republican candidates have even suggested labeling one of the toxins polluting the area, petcoke, as a "source of renewable energy."

"Environmental racism."

The fact that 48217 has a population that is composed of over 80 percent minority families. It seems awfully suspicious that all the projects are being greenlit are being done so by white officials - and many of them appear to have been rerouted to white neighborhoods. People have taken note.

Activist Rhonda Anderson believes that the government's refusal to help locals may have something to do with environmental racism. Theresa Landrum, a fellow activist, can't help but agree.

"Who watches over the state regulatory agencies? We are lay people dealing with these agencies and officials. When we get before our local and state regulatory agencies, they seem to be jaded. They seem to be all Caucasians, and we are all people of color." - Theresa Landrum, activist

It's not like people aren't trying to voice their worries. A recent petition in the area had collected over 200 signatures of people who are looking for a buyout for their home, claiming that the area is no longer suitable for habitation.

Most locals are also vocal, on a literal level. In many rallies in the area, protestors have begun to chant "Buy us out!"

Michelle Martinez noted that fighting movements to expand corporate power in Detroit are nearly impossible, partially thanks to legislation passed about the area's "financial emergency." The emergency managers are given almost unilateral power by the governor, which means that actual elections don't matter.

These emergency managers are given powers to supersede local and state ordinances if they so see fit. The end result is an exceptionally corrupt, corporate bribed political scene that leaves minorities powerless to do anything to help themselves.

Even Al Jazeera has covered the story of 48217, and noted that it seems to be proof that black lives really don't matter in America. The way that politicians are handling it is nothing short of a pure example of what corporate dictatorship looks like in action.

"By the people, for the corporations..."

It's clear that politicians are not willing to actually work on behalf of their people. It's also clear that corporations don't care (or believe) that they are killing people. Continuing to fight isn't going to make them win. That would only work in a real democracy, rather than the kangaroo court system that Detroit currently has.

But, there may be some good news - other people might.

The more publicity this zip code gets, the more likely it is that they can get out of the area and get a government buyout. The locality is well-organized, and it's very clear that there's a good chance that they may be able to spark a change by calling for help outside of the government.

Perhaps, if outrage continues to grow, something may happen - even if it ends up being fellow citizens who end up offering them the buyout they need to stay healthy. After all, it could be our own towns that have democracy switched out for corporatocracy tomorrow.


About the Creator

Ossiana Tepfenhart

Ossiana Tepfenhart is a writer based out of New Jersey. This is her work account. She loves gifts and tips, so if you like something, tip her!

Reader insights

Be the first to share your insights about this piece.

How does it work?

Add your insights


There are no comments for this story

Be the first to respond and start the conversation.

Sign in to comment

    Find us on social media

    Miscellaneous links

    • Explore
    • Contact
    • Privacy Policy
    • Terms of Use
    • Support

    © 2024 Creatd, Inc. All Rights Reserved.