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EJ: assessing the systemic quality of life issues

By Stacy Gittleman

Most Michiganders place a value on natural resources and environmental stewardship. They want to protect the environment so they can enjoy the great outdoors by swimming in a pristine waterway or hiking in the Upper Peninsula.

But that is not the focus of the environmental justice movement. Throughout the country, some communities have been historically wracked with disproportionate pollution levels and infrastructure deficiencies. Environmental justice is the reckoning with the fact that most of the people who live in these polluted or underserved communities are poor and people of color, and despite some policy at the federal and state level that addresses the issue, little to nothing over the decades has been done to rectify the plight of environmental injustice.

The state of Michigan defines Environmental Justice (EJ) as “the equitable treatment and meaningful involvement of all people, regardless of race, color, national origin, ability, or income and is critical to the development and application of laws, regulations, and policies that affect the environment, as well as the places people live, work, play, worship, and learn.”

In addition to calling for accountability among industry and other polluters, Michigan’s environmental justice activists, government officials, and academic researchers also circle back to much of the environmental issues Downtown Newsmagazine has covered in the past year: water infrastructure, water and land contaminated by industry, and the urgent call to migrate towards greener

energy sources. Flint was always brought up in conversation, serving as the ultimate example of what can happen to an entire city when government fails to protect the most basic human right: access to safe drinking water.

Environmental justice also means reparations to the generations of Black and Brown communities who, not by the will of their own, but through antiquated redlining and segregation zoning laws, forced them to share their backyards with some of the country’s worst polluters.

A discussion about environmental justice would be incomplete without mentioning its roots in the Civil Rights movement. According to congressional reports, when North Carolina proposed dumping soil contaminated with polychlorinated biphenyls into a landfill in tiny Warren County (population 20,972 source: 2010 U.S. Census) in 1982, there was a public protest led by the NAACP and outcry from residents there. The state ultimately went through with its plans – which ultimately contaminated the town’s drinking water.

In a famous photo, several men from the town are in the foreground, lying face down across a road with police in riot gear looking down at them. In the background is a fleet of trucks containing hazardous waste. Five hundred residents were arrested that day for protesting the contamination of their town. And just like those grainy photos from the civil rights movement and the digitized ones from the summer of 2020, the protesters were Black and the armed law enforcement officers were White.

Watching the story unfold from the days when he was an assistant professor at the University of Utah was Paul Mohai. now a professor at the University of Michigan’s School of Environment and Sustainability (SEAS) and one of the most sought after advisors for the environmental justice policy movement in the nation, he said the incident was the defining start of the environmental justice movement.

“When North Carolina permitted a hazardous waste dump to be built in a predominantly African American community, I don’t think anyone anticipated the level of organization and protesting that took place from that community,” recalled Mohai. “Before that, people were not aware of the environmental problems African Americans and other people of color were experiencing. There was a perception that racial minorities were more concerned about equality, jobs, and economic opportunities. The other element that made it newsworthy was that the activists in Warren County received help from various civil rights organizations to organize their protests. The civil rights movement at the time was still not that long ago. And when I saw news coverage of that protest, it made me think, though this country passed the Civil Rights Act (in 1964), there are still some issues that have yet to be resolved.”

According to Mohai, the protests in Warren County prompted a study by the U.S. General Accounting Office (GAO) in 1983. It concluded that three of four hazardous waste landfills examined were situated in areas that were majority African American and where families’ incomes were below the poverty line.

By the time Mohai arrived in Ann Arbor in 1987 as an assistant professor at what was then known as the School of Natural Resources, there still were not many studies on environmental racism. Though the GAO report was out, it mainly focused on the South.

Mohai wondered, is this a southern problem or one that is more pervasive?

He began his work researching the environmental attitudes of African Americans. He soon realized little data had been collected on the topic. That was when he first met now U-M Professor Emeritus Bunyan Bryant, who is one of the founding members of the environmental justice movement. He suggested that Mohai read Toxic Waste and Race in the United States. The landmark study, compiled by United Church of Christ in 1987, drew a direct line between the placement of toxic waste facilities and communities of poverty and/or color. It also coined the term “environmental racism.”

“Back in 1987, that paper was a life changer for me,” said Mohai, who continued this research and was one of the authors of Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty (2007). “At the time, there was little being written about the possibility that environmental pollution and contamination were impacting some communities more than others. Back in those days, we tended to talk about environmental problems affecting everybody equally. But this report refuted that notion by saying that some groups of people are more affected than others.”

The 2007 revised study revealed that little change or progress had been made in improving the lives or the surrounding conditions for the people who lived in the nation’s most polluted hot zones.

The report stated: “Twenty years after the release of the Toxic Wastes and Race report, racial and socioeconomic disparities persist in the distribution of the nation’s commercial hazardous waste facilities. People of color are found to be more concentrated around hazardous waste facilities than previously shown… Unequal protection places communities of color at special risk. And polluting industries still follow the path of least resistance, among other findings.”

According to the reports, in 1987, 66 percent of the people living near commercial hazardous waste facilities in Michigan were people of color. The percentage of people of color living in all other areas of the state is 19 percent. Michigan’s disproportionality was found to be the most severe in the entire country. Twenty years later, 65 percent of the people living within three miles of a commercial hazardous waste facility are people of color, despite being only 25 percent of Michigan’s total population.

In 1990, Bryant and Mohai organized the Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards. That event, and the toxic waste study, were credited by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) as the key two milestones to bring the issue of environmental justice to the attention of the agency.

From there, there were a string of environmental justice legislative actions at the federal level. The George H.W. Bush administration in 1990 established the Environmental Equity Work Group, which determined that “racial minority and low-income populations experience higher than average exposures to selected air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish, and agricultural pesticides in the workplace.’’ In 1992, Bush established the Office of Environmental Equity, now known as the EPA’s Office of Environmental Justice, at the EPA.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed Executive Order 12898, which mandated federal agencies to incorporate environmental justice into their work and programs. By 2004, however, a report from the Office of the Inspector General at the EPA noted that the “EPA has not fully implemented Executive Order 12898 nor consistently integrated environmental justice into its day-to-day operations.’’

In 2005, the GAO released a report concluding that “the (EPA) has failed to consistently consider environmental justice in making rules that protect families from environmental degradation and pollution.”

In 2008, Congress passed the Environmental Justice Renewal Act. It stated, “The purpose of this bill is to ensure that every federal agency takes environmental justice into account when carrying our activities and programs; establish an Interagency Working Group on environmental justice; expand and create new grant programs to help communities and states address environmental justice, and increase training and accountability regarding environmental justice at the EPA.”

The legacy of environmental grievances here in Michigan and around the country have disproportionately fallen on communities of color. While there have been several pieces of legislation, mostly ineffective, they have attempted to resolve the issue.

Though there are many polluted hotspots in the state, the most notorious, before the Flint Water Crisis erupted, is zip code 48217 in southwest Detroit. At the turn of the 20th century, the rise of the automotive and manufacturing industries and the promise of good-paying jobs in northern cities free of southern racial persecution attracted many African Americans to move to Detroit and other Michigan cities during the Great Migration. Eventually, city redlining rules segregated black residents into certain neighborhoods, which also became zoned for industrial and commercial uses, as illustrated by 48217.

In 1959, Marathon Petroleum purchased land in that area. Over the decades, it expanded its tar sand operations to encompass 250 acres, producing 140,000 barrels of oil a day. According to 2011 research by Mohai and his colleagues at U-M, southwest Detroit is home to 10 major polluting factories. Though they emit tons of cancer-causing chemicals, such as manganese, sulfuric acid, nickel, lead, trimethylbenzene, and chromium annually, the factories are considered in compliance with state and federal regulations. Yet, these chemicals are associated with increased risks for cancer, asthma, neurological, cardiovascular and developmental disorders.

The community of zip code 48217 is dissected by I-75 leading to the Ambassador Bridge, on which up to 13,000 trucks travel every day, which residents allege causes respiratory illnesses to those who live nearby. The diesel toxins cause 280 deaths and 380 heart attacks annually in Detroit, according to the grassroots organization Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments.

The median income in zip code 48217 is $42,043 and its five-year unemployment rate is 13 percent. Marathon Oil has invested $350 million in facility improvements in the past decade and has reduced emissions by 80 percent in the last 20 years. In 2020, Marathon paid an $82,000 fine to the state of Michigan’s Environment, Great Lakes & Energy (EGLE) Department for illegal and toxic emissions and paid $539,000 in community safeguards. With $5 million, it bought out hundreds of homes of homeowners to create buffers of green space between the tar sands and adjacent neighborhoods. Lingering problems from decades of toxic emissions have taken their toll, and residents still suffer grave illnesses.

Instead of taking grievances against polluters on a case by case basis, New Jersey, in 2020, passed the country’s most stringent environmental laws by considering a polluter’s history of violations and its impact on a surrounding overburdened community, defined by the state as communities in census tracts that have high rates of poverty, where at least 40 percent of residents are a minority and 40 percent of households have limited English proficiency. According to the state, New Jersey has 310 municipalities that fit into this category.

It has been touted as the strongest law of its kind in the nation. Critics of the law, such as state business associations, say the law is too broad and could be a detriment to certain industries.

As a first test for the legislation, the town of Piscataway, New Jersey, considered an overburdened community, is looking to block a large-scale development of a warehouse facility close to a public elementary school. Residents there fear the operation of such a facility, which would increase the traffic of diesel-emitting trucks, could be a health hazard to schoolchildren.

The EPA under the Biden Administration appointed its second African American EPA administrator, environmental justice veteran Michael Regan. He was most recently head of the Department of Environmental Equality in North Carolina. Under his watch, the state agency held Duke Energy accountable as it conducted the biggest coal ash cleanup in the country, according to reports from the National Resources Defense Council.

In June and July, the agency announced the availability of two, separate $50 million allocations, part of the American Rescue Plan that will be allocated for environmental justice initiatives. Half of the funds would go to enhance air pollution monitoring in environmental justice communities. The next $50 million would be divided into the following programs, among others: $16.6 million for grants to help cities, states, tribes, and territories to fund education on pollution’s impacts on the environment and public health; $7 million for the Diesel Emissions Act rebate program to address environmental justice issues for reducing diesel pollution; and $5 million will be used to expand civil and criminal enforcement to include monitoring low-income communities and drinking water sources for pollution.

In May, Regan spoke over Zoom at Michigan’s first conference on environmental justice, run by the newly-formed Michigan State Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, a new post created by Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration, among other environmental justice policy initiatives.

“Environmental Justice is finally taking the rightful place in the federal government,” said Regan. “It is part of our obligation to empower the people long left out of the conversation.”

In the first days of his administration, President Joe Biden signed a series of executive orders to address climate change, build infrastructure and deliver on environmental justice. Among them was Executive Order 14008, or the Justice40 Initiative. It assures that disadvantaged communities that experience a disproportionate amount of unemployment, racial and ethnic discrimination, poverty, and shoulder a lion’s share of environmental degradation should receive 40 percent of climate and clean energy investments through federal grant funding.

However, experts interviewed say it is not clear how or when the administration plans to allocate funding. Both the 1987 and 2007 studies from the UCC prove that programs from governments are largely unsuccessful.

On August 25, the Justice40 Accelerator, a non-profit partnership organization independent of the federal government announced 52 cohort organizations from around the nation it would help facilitate receiving Justice40 funding. Michigan organizations include Detroit Future City, a think tank that looks to advance equity for all Detroiters, and the Highland Park Community Crisis Coalition, an organization formed initially to provide immediate needs and economic relief to Highland Parkers impacted by the COVID-19 crisis which aims to become a long-term source for resilience and equity for residents.

U-M’s Mohai, who has worked for decades on a myriad of state and federal advisory councils and committees about environmental justice, said he is not sure of the timing or mechanisms of how Justice40 funding will make it down to the local government or grassroots level, but above all, when people express what they need in terms of environmental justice, they speak in terms of public health.

“The need that comes up most is improvements in public health. Whether it’s putting in air filtration systems in the public schools located nearby to industrial sites, retrofitting school busses to reduce diesel emissions, and replacing lead pipes in homes and schools, people generally want funding that will enhance public health.”

At the state level, Gov. Whitmer has put into place several environmental initiatives initiatives first recommended by a 2018 report from the Michigan Environmental Justice Work Group, a body of 33 activists, academics, business and civic community and tribal leaders put together by former Gov. Rick Snyder in 2017, amid the wake of the Flint Water crisis to study environmental inequities.

Under the guidance of the report, Whitmer has initiated an air quality assessment in the school buildings impacted in environmental justice communities, a mobile air monitoring project that visits the hardest hit environmental justice communities to study the particulate matter of pollutants in the air.

Above all, the Whitmer administration passed an executive order for the creation of the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate. A department within EGLE, the office, headed by environmental activist veteran Regina Strong, oversees interagency communication and roundtable and policy.

Strong, since April 2019, has acted as a statewide point of contact for the public to raise concerns regarding potential environmental justice issues. Her work, guided by the 22-member Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice (MAC EJ), not only focuses on hearing external complaints from the public about environmental problems but also guides and advises government officials across multiple agencies within an Interagency Environmental Response Team. The purpose of this team is to grow awareness of how the complex policies create within individual government agencies and impact the individual living in a region that has disproportionately borne the brunt of pollution caused by industry and infrastructure neglect.

The Office of the EJ Public Advocate, along with community partners in southwest Detroit, also oversees a two-year pilot resiliency project for southwest Detroit funded through a grant from the EPA.

Strong said she has long held a passion for wanting to make communities of color, those hit hardest by environmental degradation, to become more resilient as the state works to leave behind its dependence on fossil fuels and the history of pollution that it created.

“It is my job to connect them with the right resources, especially those that have been hardest hit by environmental injustices,” said Strong. “It is my responsibility to give a voice and a seat at the table to those who did not have much of a voice in directing state policy.”

Another part of Strong’s job is to educate and train the EGLE staff to the needs and sensitivities of the environmental justice movement, understanding just what that is and how to implement environmental justice concepts into the workings of EGLE and other state policymakers in transportation, infrastructure, housing, and healthcare – all areas where people living in those communities face additional inequalities.

“For those working in a regulatory capacity in government, the ongoing challenge for (my office) will be to make them think beyond the regulations,” said Strong. “The folks who are implementing the regulations are not the same who can make changes to the regulations. The challenge of my role is helping these people see differently.”

Strong held the first in-person meeting with MAC EJ as well as representatives from different government agencies in February 2020.

Then the pandemic hit.

In the earliest days of COVID-19, one of the first issues her office addressed was getting the water turned back on to the poorest people in the state so they could wash their hands.

“That instance was the first evidence that proved the MAC EJ had value. We had water justice warriors right there at the table. Suddenly, access to running water became a real priority. So, right out of the gate, our office had to triage how to help people who suffered from water turnoffs in Detroit and called upon the state to remedy the problem.”

In 2021, Strong formed four areas of focus on research, data planning, training, and communications outreach. Strong also organized several regional listening roundtables for different parts of the state, with Flint having its own separate roundtable. From these roundtables, Strong said much of the concern from the grassroots level revolves around the issues of water: access to clean, drinking water; the quality of water in internal structures like homes, apartments, and schools; PFAS contamination in natural waterways; as well as underserved infrastructure that causes persistent flooding and destruction as Michigan begins to experience the impact of climate change.

Then, there is the issue of the proximity to industrial sites. Some areas have unique problems, Strong said. Those living near active or defunct military training bases fear for their waterways that are contaminated with the forever chemicals of PFAS. Tribal communities in the Upper Peninsula spoke about contamination from mining operations.

Though Strong said she is in communication with federal and White House environmental officials, she has not yet seen a timeline for how funding from the Justice40 Initiative or the infrastructure bill will play out to reach the communities that need them the most.

“I am hopeful that a lot of that funding (proposed by the Justice40 Initiative) is made available and gets to where it is needed to build healthier, more resilient communities.”

When the time comes though, to apply for the funding, nothing speaks more to illustrate cases of environmental injustices in a specific area than robust data.

Another recommendation from the Snyder administration’s Environmental Working Group was the creation of a statewide online mapping tool that pinpoints and ranks where the hardest hit areas are located that is based on statistical data collected across multiple agencies.

In 2017, University of Michigan alumni Michelle Martinez, who graduated in 2008 from School of Environment and Sustainability with a masters in environmental policy and was serving as the statewide coordinator for the grassroots Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, reconnected with professor Mohai with an idea to work with his current students to create a mapping tool to identify the state’s hotspots of environmental racism and injustice. Through in-depth interviews with environmental activists and rigorous quantitative data collecting, Martinez and the students created an environmental justice mapping tool modeled after those created by the USEPA, California EPA, and Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA). Scoring was compiled on 11 environmental indicators, such as lifetime cancer risk from breathing in toxins, exposure to lead paint, levels of diesel particulate in the air from commercial vehicle emissions, proximity to hazardous waste facilities, and respiratory hazard index as well as social indicators that looked at statistics such as education levels, employment, poverty and employment rates and households where members had a less than proficient understanding of English. Unlike the mapping tools used in California and Minnesota, the Michigan environmental justice tool did not include public health indicators.

The study then color-coded and ranked each of Michigan’s 2,813 census tracts on an index of environmental injustice. The tracts that scored in the lowest percentiles, meaning they were minimally impacted by poverty, pollutants, and toxins, were colored green, including Birmingham, which is in the 21st percentile. Those ranking in the highest percentiles – meaning they experienced the most extreme incidences of environmental injustices – showing up as deep red – were found in expected cities like Detroit, Flint – but also ranking high were many tracts in Kent County, Grand Rapids, Kalamazoo, and other less expected areas.

Mohai said the purpose of the mapping tool is to better illustrate the layers of complex data so that funding for these communities can be expedited.

“The map is very informative as a visual way to present statistical data that otherwise stays abstract,” said Mohai, who has served on advisory committees for creating such data tools both at the state and the federal level. “There are tens of thousands of census tracts in the country – how do we know which ones need the most help? The map provides a complete picture and indicates where the concentrations (of environmental injustice) are located.”

The study is the first comprehensive assessment of the status of environmental justice in Michigan. It is providing the basis for EGLE to create an enhanced version of this mapping tool to include other data that was not accessible to students, such as public health statistics. Strong said that the state has been building the mapping tool for the last 18 months and is close to being released for public comment.

Looking back at her graduate work as she steps down from her post as MECJ’s acting executive director, Martinez hopes that for future generations, the legacy of environmental racism can be a thing of the past.

“The tool helps create a pathway to reduce toxic pollution in Black and Brown communities in Michigan,” said Martinez. “Now, we need policy makers to ensure its success, and get on that road – because no matter what you look like or where you live, access to clean air and water is fundamental to life.” 

Martinez is passing the torch to the next environmental justice leaders in the coalition, such as Jamesa Johnson Greer. A native of southwest Detroit, Greer is the coalition’s climate justice director. From an early age, she has witnessed the issues of what happens when a community is overburdened with industry, traffic, and pollution.

“I never realized just how much my family was impacted by pollution on a day-to-day basis until I went away to college,” said Greer. “By the time I started law school, I began to understand how important it was to utilize the law, and how much knowledge that folks who are living in an environmental justice community could offer through their lived experience.”

Her work has sent her driving around the state to cities and towns in Kent County, which received some of the highest percentile rankings on the environmental justice map. These are communities living with legacy polluters: industries like long-defunct paper and logging mills that left behind their toxins for decades to come.

“The reality is, in Michigan, environmental justice is not just a Detroit issue,” said Greer. “And when we bring the statistics up to legislators, they are a bit reluctant to deal with it because Michigan prides itself on being industry friendly. We need to challenge this a bit and say, we want to be friendly to industries, but they need to be friendly and responsible to the towns and communities in which they do business.”

In addition to disproportionate exposure to pollutants, Greer said those living in environmental justice communities live in neighborhoods that are more prone to flooding.

“Every time it rains, and your basement is flooded, that is hurting your generational wealth investment of homeownership for many Black and Brown families,” Greer said. “We are glad to see that (persistent flooding problems) in environmental justice communities are being viewed as a problem where President Biden will focus some Justice40 and other climate policy funding, because these are communities that are often left behind. And oftentimes, the same communities which are dealing with flooding are dealing with the presence of industrial smokestacks and unreliable power from utilities.”

Greer said that success in the environmental justice movement will depend upon what happens after the polluters stop polluting. She wonders, when the air is cleaner, will there also be investment in education and union jobs that will help build the infrastructure and create a more localized energy economy with more choices than just two utilities? Yet she understands that training and jobs and a better infrastructure will not make a difference if industrial polluters are still allowed to pollute and degrade the air that people breathe.

“For environmental justice to happen, polluters need to change their ways,” she said. “The problem is that the regulatory framework looks at polluters on a site-by-site, case-by-case basis. They don’t take into account the total cumulative amount they have polluted an area, they don’t take into account the real, tangible outcomes that have damaged the health of generations of people. And then (the law) continues to permit them to pollute more. If we stop the pollution, then people can continue to maintain their communities right. They can continue to live and thrive.”

Understanding the problem and taking action are often two different sides of the same coin. The first complaint filed with the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate was by the nonprofit Great Lakes Law and Policy Center in July 2020, on behalf of the residents who live near the U.S. Ecology Plant on the border of Hamtramck and Detroit.

The 59-page Title IX Civil Rights complaint opposed EGLE approving a nine-fold increase to activities of the U.S. Ecology North to handle PFAS forever chemical remediation at their facility in January 2020. The census tract of Hamtramck is in the 93.4th percentile on the EJ mapping tool, the 92nd percentile for low-income housing, 70th percentile for minority populations and the 94th percentile for the national Air Toxics Cancer Risk score.

The complaint stated the following: “EGLE (approved the permit) even though the facility is in a densely populated low-income community of color that already includes another commercial hazardous waste facility just to the south as well as a number of other industrial sites that have caused nearby residents physical and mental harm. In doing so, EGLE is continuing a history of discriminatory practices that has plagued this neighborhood since the 1940’s.”

Great Lakes Law and Policy Center Executive Director Nicholas Leonard said his organization is still in negotiations with EGLE to settle the complaint.

Regarding the office of the Public Advocate, Leonard said giving people a voice is a good start, but the question is how that voice is going to translate into measurable improvements for environmental justice communities.

“It’s one thing to listen to people when they say their community bears an unfair burden of pollution, to listen to people express the health hazards environmental degradation has on their community, it’s another thing to act on them,” said Leonard, who was served as a member of Gov. Whitmer’s Environmental Justice advisory council. “In the case with U.S. Ecology (where the expansion permit was granted), we are waiting to see how this listening is going to turn into action.”

Leonard summed up what is needed – money to address the historical inequities, and policy and regulations to stop future inequities.

“Will the money (proposed by the Biden Administration) address the residents’ concerns?” Leonard pondered. “Maybe. Those living near U.S. Ecology want to upgrade their air filtration systems and they are unwilling to be relocated away from their community. But grant money only gets you so far. They can address historical inequities but they cannot stop future inequities from happening. What is needed is future laws and regulations that will make it incredibly difficult for corporations and the siting of industries and industrial waste facilities to continue to site activities in communities of color. Otherwise, in 30 years from now, the same communities will have the same concerns. “

One neighborhood in Flint is battling yet another threat to the quality of the environment they live in. Last January, Troy-based Ajax Paving Industries proposed to build a new asphalt facility just over city lines in Genesee Township, near a Flint neighborhood that scored in the 82nd percentile on the EJ map and applied for an EGLE permit. The air use permit would mandate the asphalt plant follow emission limits, meet testing requirements and monitor and keep records of the fact that they are meeting permit requirements, according to a proposed project summary from EGLE.

Yet Flint residents, backed by Michigan United and a coalition of citizen organizers, feel that they have borne enough of the brunt of the state’s polluting industries. The neighborhood also scored 75th percentile on the National Air Toxics Assessment Cancer Risk Score, 75th percentile for low-income housing, and 99th percentile for unemployment.

Michigan United’s environmental lawyer Eric Ini is the organization’s environmental justice director, who said he was pleased he was able to extend the public hearing and comments with the EPA through September 22.

In 2020, the organization was victorious against Marathon Oil Refinery and won $5 million for buyouts for Black homeowners in southwest Detroit. Now, they want to accelerate the pace of such victories for others suffering in the state, such as in Flint.

“Michigan United and its coalition members have been campaigning relentlessly to stop Ajax from getting a permit to build an asphalt plant in a predominantly Black community, already overburdened with pollution from other factories located in the area,” said Ini. “(Our) goal is to present facts and evidence to EGLE to urge them not to grant the permit to Ajax. Where is Governor Whitmer in this? She has the power to override decisions by EGLE. If she is passionate about environmental justice, then she must use her power to do these practical things. Yes, Whitmer campaigned on fixing roads, and we all need roads, but why does yet another factory need to be put in a Black community? That’s what we call environmental racism.”

Strong of Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate knows that as the state’s environmental justice ombudsman, her job comes with criticism. She acknowledged that her office staff needs to grow. For now, the office consists of herself and Environmental Justice and Tribal Liaison Katie Kruse. Though Strong said her two-person office is working to their capacity to best advise about the needs of residents to state and local government agencies as well as to be in constant conversation with the EPA, she acknowledges her office needs to expand to meet the needs and to adequately hear out the petitions from those at the grassroots level.

“We need to expand and we know that. There is so much we can do in terms of influencing policy and getting responses to the people and communities that need them. As much as our capacity allows, we are engaged in as many places we can be.”

An example is recently, one of the places requesting Strong’s attention is Benton Harbor in Berrien County. According to the EJ mapping tool, the four-square-mile city with a population of about 10,000 people scored in the 95th percentile. In other environmental justice indicators, it ranked in the 91st minority percentile, 89th housing burdened low-income households percentile, and 99th percentile for poverty.

On September 9, activists there filed a petition with the EPA for emergency help after enduring high levels of lead in their drinking water for the past three years. The 35-page petition states that residents “continue to live with significant and dangerous levels of lead contamination three years after the contamination was first discovered with no immediate solution in sight.”

One grassroots organizer who feels that Strong’s office could be doing more is faith leader Rev. Edward Pinkney, president of the grassroots Benton Harbor Community Water Council. Though he said he is encouraged that Governor Whitmer on September 8 announced she had allocated $20 million to remove every lead service line in Benton Harbor and $200 million to remove lead pipes throughout the state within five years with an expansion to the MI Clean Water Plan, citizens need immediate help in receiving shipments of bottled water and assistance in properly installing water filters on their home faucets. He also believes the city would have received more attention if not for the fact that 85 percent of the residents there are Black.

“Until the lead lines are replaced, we need a better distribution and education plan from the Berrien County Health Department. We know that the water filters are just a band-aid to the problem. But the right outreach, education and information, especially to our elderly residents, would help the community.”

According to a 2020 Consumer Confidence Water report filed with Benton Harbor regarding water quality, recorded lead levels were at 23 parts per billion (ppb). But Pinkney said lead levels taken from other water samples in some homes tested much higher. Under the state’s current lead and copper law, the safety threshold is 15 parts per billion.

“For the last three years, Benton Harbor has had extremely high lead levels – between 489 and as high as 605 (parts per billion),” said Pinkney.

Pinkney said that Whitmer, with her announcement to speed up the lead line replacement process, finally proved what Benton Harbor residents have been saying all along: It should not take 20 years to remove the lead pipes.

Regarding the increased attention and funding the EPA has proposed for underserved communities poisoned with lead pipes, Pinkney was encouraged by the developments at the federal level and said that is why he reached out beyond the state for help. Even with Whitmer’s announcement to boost funding, he is still skeptical she can deliver.

“We didn’t want to file a petition, but (the state) left us no choice because they were not moving in the right direction,” said Pinkney. “But we still have to wait to see if Whitmer is going to do what she said she would do in that announcement. She still has to go through the state Republican legislature, and I don’t believe for one second they will give her this victory.”

In a response statement released to Downtown Newsmagazine by EGLE, spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid Jr. said that EGLE has been working diligently with the city of Benton Harbor to reduce lead in their drinking water in compliance with the Safe Drinking Water Act, while the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services works with the residents and local health department to minimize any potential health impacts while the water infrastructure needs of the city are addressed.

EGLE said Benton Harbor, with the agency’s supervision in March 2019, installed corrosion control treatment technology at its water plant to reduce the amount of corrosivity in the water. EGLE also helped Benton Harbor secure $5.6 million in EPA funding for lead service line replacement and a corrosion control study, which is currently underway to improve the effectiveness of the corrosion control program. Benton Harbor has also begun the process of replacing an estimated 6,000 service lines – many of which are suspected to be lead – still in service.

By September 12, Strong was on her way to meet with Pinkney and other Benton Harbor residents to assess the immediate needs for bottled water distribution and assistance with water filter installations.

“Rev. Pinkney is a fierce advocate for his community,” Strong said in an interview on the road back between Benton Harbor and Lansing. “I understand the sense of urgency he has for the people he represents. I have had many conversations with Rev. Pinkney about building that sense of urgency internally (within state agencies). I think the governor’s announcement in terms of the investment is all part of that internal working to try to make sure that we help as quickly as possible to correct the lead service line issues in Benton Harbor. But it will still take five years, and in the meantime, we need to address the fact that people will need bottled water and education in installing those water filters.

“And for right now, that’s where we are.”


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