The Ooze Cruise
In January 2020 My friend Lauren Schandevel and I hosted the “Ooze Cruise”, a walk around Electroplating Services in Madison Heights. This site has become famous in Michigan because of the “green ooze”, a toxic mixture of Hexavalent Chromium, trichloroethylene (TCE) and cyanide which was dumped into earthen pits in the basement of a run down industrial building which eventually seeped through the soil and emerging on the adjacent I-696 Freeway. Shortly after the Green Ooze started garnering media attention, It was discovered that Gary Sayers, the unscrupulous owner of electroplating services, also laid claim to another contaminated cite in Detroit, and yet another suspicious site in Sanilac.
The group that assembled for the Ooze Cruise was composed of friends, concerned citizens, state representative Lori Stone, and a public works commissioner. Gathering in front of shiny new superfund sign, we introduced ourselves shared what we know about the decades old disaster, and engaged in a very brief meditation on love and care– bringing to mind the face of someone we love, and and then sending that love through our feet into the wounded earth. I wondered aloud if the earth can feel that. We then walked to the back of the building to get a look at the State’s clean up which has racked up a bill of several million dollars of taxpayer money and left flowers on the fence.
After the walk around electroplating services, we headed to Max Dugan’s Saloon, the bar across the street, and purveyor of the Ooze shot. Over the lime green shots and bar snacks we watched the recent house appropriations committee hearing about the Ooze. Where we learned about the truly horrific facts of the case, and the larger picture of environmental degradation and state negligence. In fact there are thousands of toxic sites in Michigan and under one hundred of those sites are being actively monitored.
As I grow older, I increasingly understand the porousness of our bodies and minds. Our flesh and the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat and the soil and minerals we come into contact with shape us. And, of course this process is reciprocal. Just a couple days later at the Tri-county Environmental Justice Solidarity Rally Theresa Landrum spoke deliberately:
“Pollution knows no borders. What affects me, affects you. What affects you, affects me.”Theresa Landrum at the Tri-County Environmental Justice Solidarity Rally on January 23rd, 2019
Landrum has embodied experience of what this porosity between our bodies and contaminated environments means. In an interview with Friends of the Earth she tells of the cancerous effects of pollution in the Delray neighborhood of Detroit, on her mother, her neighbors and her. In 2007 She spoke at city council meetings opposing the expansion of the Marathon Refinery while undergoing Chemotherapy.
With the discovery of the Green Ooze emerging from the concrete retaining wall of I-696 in Madison heights Michigan, the name Gary Sayers has become infamous. Yet to say that this is just a story of one bad man with toxic sites in Detroit, Sterling heights and Sanilac- would be to miss the larger sweeping narrative of continued environmental degradation at the hands of corporate polluters and the negligence of the part of EGLE and the EPA. This sort of negligence comes as no surprise to communities of color in Detroit and Flint who have long suffered a lack of corporate accountability and enforcement– with dire consequences. Just weeks before the news of the green ooze hit the news a the collapse of a sea wall at Detroit Bulk Storage caused the erosion of soil, contaminated with uranium into the Detroit river- And a massive petroleum leak was found (AGAIN!) on the Red Run, And E Coli containing foam and toilet paper washed up on the shores of lake Saint Clair. I say this just to make clear that this is a wide spread issue. This is not one bad man- this is a systemic problem which is resulting in the ongoing transformation of our world into a sacrifice zone.
Yet to zoom out wider still, the problem doesn’t end there. In conversations with other Southeast Michigan residents it quickly becomes clear that many people have lost their ability to imagine a better world. And it’s perfectly understandable why you might. Take this gem of a quote from Liesel Clark, the director of EGLE:
We have some number of thousands of contaminated sites in Michigan. If EGLE had modern IT systems… I’d be able to give you a more precise number , but whether its 5, 8, 10 or even more thousand sites, It’s a hell of a lot of sites…. When it comes to inspection and other oversight, we prioritize these sites, and pay closest attention to those that pose the greatest risk to human health…. It would be irresponsible and counterproductive to paint a picture for Michiganders that grave health risks are hiding around every corner… on the other end of the spectrum, there is no amount of money that would ever allow EGLE to closely and routinely monitor every site on the list. Even if you gave us a blank check, EGLE couldn’t find and train enough qualified people to inspect our way to the bottom of that pile. So whether we like it or not prioritization is a simple fact of our lives. Given that, the question for all of us becomes, where should we land on that continuum of risk? Where on there should we determine the cost no longer justifies the expense. That sounds cold and I hate to say it, but its reality and it means that none of us can expect not to experience another incident again like the one we are experiencing right now in Madison Heights.Liesl Eichler Clark, at the house appropriations committee meeting. http://www.house.mi.gov/SharedVideo/PlayVideoArchive.html?video=APPR-011520.mp4
A couple weeks after Liesl Clark uttered these words EGLE issued a permit to allow the expansion of the US ecology facility in Detroit with a history of violations, and growing public resistance– demonstrating perfectly the DANGEROUS LACK OF IMAGINATION we now face.
Mimicking the defeatist acceptance of the status quo I keep hearing people say things like “but we need jobs.” This false duality… that we must resign ourselves to endure ongoing and accumulating toxins in the environment and our bodies if we want to make a living- is simply a false choice. Justin Onwenu pointed out on Let it Rip that the pollution caused by bad corporate actors leaves taxpayers with the bill… in the form of expensive clean up bills and healthcare costs.
We have to reject false narratives that we have to choose between good jobs and an healthy environment. We want both, and we deserve both.Justin Onwenu
The fact that we live in a world where we have, for quite some time, accepted the ongoing pollution of this earth, is a fact. So now it is of vital importance that we cultivate our ability to imagine a world where our livelihoods are not tied to toxic processes and systems. Corporate actors and the vast majority of politicians don’t give us that space… which is why it is of critical importance that WE, ordinary citizens deputize ourselves, and create spaces for imagining something better than this bullshit status quo. Then we must come together to share and strengthen those visions.
Where can we find the examples of political imagination required to bring about new worlds? On the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition website this beautiful vision, drafted at the First National People of Color Leadership Summit some 30 years ago still rings clear as a bell:
Tinder for the Fire of Civic Imagination and Solidarity
As the sacrifice zones of the expansionist capitalist economy grow ever larger, the number people feeling the effects of state’s legacy of negligence and corporate non-compliance is growing, and it is by coming together across race, class and county lines that we can imagine economy that sustains life instead of destroying it. Both the visibility, severity and multiple sites owned by Gary Sayers has provided the perfect tinder for a spark of civic imagination and collective power, as activists and concerned citizens across race and class lines, band together to demand accountability for corporate polluters, and policy change at the state level.
“Far too often people from Macomb County , Detroit and Oakland County are pitted against each other. While our communities are unique so many of the challenges we face are caused by the same source: corporate polluters make make messes that taxpayers have to pay for. This week, we got to come together across these false divisions and call for clean air/water, and polluter pay/corporate accountability legislation.”Justin Onwenu (Sierra Club)
Perhaps now, suburbanites will stand shoulder to shoulder with the people of Detroit who have already been in the fight for Environmental Justice fight for a long time? Perhaps these widening networks of friendship and solidarity have the capacity to transform the world.
Face to face with Social and Ecological Wounds
As a socially engaged artist, I believe that developing, face to face relationships and concrete, somatic understandings is deeply important in our world, and maybe even revolutionary. Our attention seems increasingly trained on abstract and mediated realities, the result of which seems to be immersion in an echochamber and inattention to some of the most pressing concerns of our tangible world- the world our bodies live in. Society as a whole seems to be careening down the highway compulsively checking its most recent status update for new likes, without noticing the crumbling of the road itself. Which is to say, the idea of hosting an event where we can come as close as possible to the newly designated superfund site is absolutely in response to my belief that urgent action is needed if we want to maintain a world that is hospitable to life. Creating spaces where our hearts can be called into action, not just our logical minds is a survival tactic in a world that is seemingly impervious to facts.
Despite the dark situation that inspired the Ooze Cruise and the Tri-county Environmental Justice Solidarity Rally, I am feeling wildly exhilarated about how it feels to be in community with organizers who have been awake to these issues and fighting for system wide change for a long time. Im left asking… how can I help, what can I learn and what are the unique ways that art can help awaken people to the urgent situation we are in. Artists (musicians, story tellers, puppet makers etc) are needed now because they help expand the realms of social imagination. They can create cracks in the immersiveness of the status quo, so we can see what other possible worlds exist. At the very least, we can make signs and stand in solidarity with our neighbors.
I think that the contribution I can make is by finding ways to joyfully and creatively connect people to each other and the earth. As someone who is just getting comfortable calling myself an activist, I am just a baby with so much to learn. Finding my way into, what I might call highly engaged citizenship… I have found that our daily realities often leave people too exhausted to endure activism. So it may be that now more than ever JOY is needed in this work.
“[t]he role of the artist is to make the revolution irresistible.”Toni Cade Bambara
I would like to thank Justin Onwenu, Lauren Schandevel, Bridget Vial, Theresa Landrum, Heather Chen, Art Reyes III, Sean McBrearty, Jamesa Johnson-Greer, Grover D Easterling III, Eli Day, Diana Faraj for making the Tri-county Solidarity rally happen! I’m looking forward to working side by side with you to bring the world we live in closer to the world we know is possible! A world that is more just, life sustaining and beautiful.