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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.