Michigan Moves to Acknowledge and Address Environmental Injustice

By Dave Dempsey    

Michigan, the state that became notorious for one of the worst episodes of environmental injustice in American history, this week staked a claim to being a leader in ensuring environmental justice.

The lead poisoning of thousands of children—and the lead exposure of 99,000 residents of Flint from tainted drinking water in 2014 and 2015—put Michigan on the map in an unwanted way. Preventing another such disaster and promoting equal treatment of all citizens was the goal of a state-sponsored environmental justice conference Tuesday through today. The conference’s theme is “Rebuilding Trust, Reimagining Justice, and Removing Barriers.”

The conference comes at a time when the Biden Administration, under EPA Administrator Michael Regan, is making environmental justice a priority. I feel like environmental justice is having a moment,” said Regina Strong, appointed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer as the first state environmental justice advocate. Administrator Regan also was one of the speakers at the virtual conference, along with Gov. Whitmer.

“At EPA, it’s our obligation to empower the people who have been left out of the conversation for far too long,” Regan told the conference. “Our legacy will be based on compassion, understanding, and most importantly action, and our legacy will be sealed by partnerships with states like Michigan.”

The conference featured presentations and panels on environmental justice screening and mapping, meaningful engagement in the air pollution permit process, water and public health equity, and tribal perspectives.

In Flint, lead was released into the city drinking water supply when the source was switched from the southeast Michigan Great Lakes Water Authority system to the more corrosive Flint River in order to save money. This, in turn, corroded lead from the pipes, exposing city residents and resulting in elevated blood levels in hundreds of children. State officials at first denied the problem and waited more than a year to restore the city’s drinking water source to the Authority. The Michigan Civil Rights Commission said the failure of government to protect the city’s residents was an example of systemic racism.

One of Pres. Biden’s proposed infrastructure initiatives is a direct response to the Flint disaster—$45 billion to replace lead service lines that carry drinking water to residences nationwide. This would affect an estimated 6 to 10 million homes, and 400,000 schools and child care facilities.

Multiple environmental justice issues affect Michiganders. Typically, neighborhoods with a high percentage of minority and/or low-income residents are disproportionately exposed to an array of environmental pollutants. Michigan is no exception. Dealing with these issues requires empowering people, said Sylvia Orduño, a member of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.  “How do you get accountability? … We need to make sure impacted residents are getting the information they need to acquire the resources to make those changes,” Orduño said.

The conference also addressed tribal perspectives on required consultation between federal and state governments and tribes. Bryan Newland, former tribal President of the Bay Mills Indian Community in Michigan and now Principal Assistant Deputy Secretary for Indian Affairs in the U.S. Department of Interior said, “One of the things that we do at the [Department of Interior] in the federal government in tribal consultation is that our policies require that it be meaningful engagement … That can be replicated with stakeholders and affected communities on any issue.” 

Whitmer told the conference, “It’s important that Michiganders have partners in state government fighting for their health. We know that we have to invest in communities and marginalized populations who have been burdened by [environmental injustice].”

In creating the Office of Environmental Justice Advocate and an interagency response team, Gov. Whitmer said her goal was to make certain that “all Michigan residents benefit from the same protections from environmental hazards,” and that the state should become a national leader in achieving environmental justice.

The Office of Environmental Justice Advocate in the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) receives and investigates complaints and concerns related to environmental justice. The office establishes and implements processes and reporting of environmental justice complaints and assists with resolution of complaints.  The office is also responsible for preparing regular reports on the complaints received, resolution, and recommendations. The office partners with EGLE divisions to coordinate hearings and public meetings aimed to facilitate interactions with environmental justice communities.

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