The Burning River ~ a photo essay by Emma Lockridge

I’m astounded that it took me a lifetime to realize that I grew up one block away from the Rouge River.

How did I not know the Rouge was so close to me?  Zoning. The cross street nearest to me, ironically called Pleasant Street, divides my subdivision into residential and industrial zones.  There was never a reason for me to venture across the street to the dead-ended, industrial side that I thought was land-locked property. It turned out that it hid the shores of the Rouge River.

I live in Detroit 48217, a community currently known as the most polluted ZIP code in the state of Michigan.  It makes sense. My community is surrounded by more than 27 industrial facilities that release millions of pounds of toxins into the air and are regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality. All of the facilities are in the area along the Rouge River where it joins the Detroit River.

My curiosity about the Rouge River was recently appeased when I boarded the Diamond Belle riverboat to explore this mysterious body of water with the Friends of the Rouge River, a group that has tirelessly worked to restore the severely polluted body of water. They offered a fundraising and educational tour on the Diamond Belle.

It could have been dubbed “The Stinky Tour” because the ship traveled through the perpetual, chemical odors from the industrial facilities that dotted the banks along the cruise.

The Rouge River has an horrific history.  In 1969, oil on the surface of the river caught fire. The river was so polluted it burned and not far from my home. Author John Hartig has written a book about it and three others called “Burning Rivers – Revival of Four Urban-Industrial Rivers that Caught on Fire”. According to an article by the Michigan Environmental Council, Hartig chronicled the rise of the Great Lakes industrialization in the early and mid 20th century when the lakes and their tributaries were considered public sewers and waste disposal lagoons.  “Industry was king… dirty rivers were considered a sign of prosperity.”

The roughly 467-mile watershed that includes all or parts of 48 municipalities and a population of more than one million people flows into the Detroit River.   “The river was always used as a place to discharge raw sewage,” said Cyndi Ross, river restoration program manager for the Friends organization. According to an article in Crain’s Detroit Business, besides the human and animal waste, it also was also used to dispose of fertilizers, pesticides and other chemicals. It is still impacted by runoff water from some communities.

The largest polluter in my community is the Marathon Petroleum Corporation, but within a four-mile radius there are many more contributors.  Our Rouge River boat tour presented an up close view of the most concerning industrial sites that included Zug Island, Marathon and AK steel.  In addition, I was able to see the other side of Pleasant Street and, just as I thought, industry lines on the banks. There is a large salt pile from the Detroit Salt Company, an oil tank farm, and other facilities most people would prefer not to live near.

The 1972 Clean Water Act made it unlawful to discharge any pollution from a point source into navigable waters.  While that has helped restore the river, it still remains ‘An Area of Concern’ under the Great Lakes Water Quality Agreement.  In other words, don’t think about taking a dip in the Rouge any time soon.

As an environmentalist, it is my charge to change the view of polluting industries. We still place profits over people.  It is not okay. The bottom line is that we must protect our waterways because water is life.

When clean water ends, so do we.

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Note:  Approximately one week after our river tour, a blast furnace explosion injured 15 workers at U.S. Steel’s Great Lakes Works plant on Zug Island. In the past five years, three people have been killed at the Great Lakes Works plant.