This is the first story in a new series from OneZero. “Black in the Time of Climate Change” will examine how Black communities across the United States experience and adapt to environmental degradation and other impacts of global warming.
Growing up in southwest Detroit, Vince Martin thought it was normal for the sky to be orange.
When he was three years old, his family moved from Cuba to one of the Black areas of town. At the time, discriminatory housing practices segregated the city. His Afro-Cuban family settled in the 48217, now Michigan’s most polluted zip code, where 71% of the population is Black and air pollution makes the sky look like it’s on fire.
Specifically, the Martins moved to Boynton, a working-class neighborhood. The town sits next door to a Marathon oil refinery and its sprawling industrial campus.
Martin, now an environmental activist in Detroit, remembers the refinery being made up of “one or two tankers” when his family settled there in the 1960s. Now, Marathon is a 250-acre tank farm that emits so much air pollution it’s received 15 violation notices from the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy since 2013 for surpassing state and federal regulations emission limits. (Marathon denies any wrongdoing, claiming it has reduced emissions by 75% over the last 20 years and only contributes to 3% of emissions in the area.)
But Martin saw air quality worsen as the refinery grew over the decades. He believes he escaped the worst of it in his youth because he traveled so often for sports, but others “weren’t so fortunate.”
At his 30-year high school reunion, it seemed to Martin that more people in his class were dead than living. He knew many had died from cancer. As a child, Martin’s younger brother David developed asthma and juvenile diabetes, both of which have been linked with air pollution. Every few days, Martin remembers, David was rushed to the…