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Michigan's poor and minority communities most impacted by environmental racism

Downtown Benton Harbor is pictured Feb. 8, 2022 (WWMT/Mike Krafcik){ }{p}{/p}
Downtown Benton Harbor is pictured Feb. 8, 2022 (WWMT/Mike Krafcik)

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Communities across the state from Flint to Detroit and Benton Harbor are calling out the impacts from generations of environmental racism and environmental injustice. Data shows people living in the most socially vulnerable populations in Michigan are more likely to be exposed to water, air pollution and contaminated sites.

Activists across the state are calling on state leaders to do more to prevent the next crisis and protect predominantly black communities from environmental injustices.

In Benton Harbor, Rev. Edward Pinkney said he's been frustrated over the state's response to the city's on-going water crisis.

Pinkney, the executive director of the non-profit Benton Harbor Water Council started handing out bottled water to residents in 2018 when high-lead levels were detected in the city's drinking water.

Pinkney said the state failed to take meaningful action to help residents until he filed an emergency petition with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Sept. 2021. Benton Harbor's population is 85% black and is the poorest city in Michigan based on per capita income.

"They don't care how bad the water is. If we had not filed a petition with the EPA, none of this stuff would be known," Pinkney said.

"Our community is being deprived"

State health officials didn't start providing bottled water to residents until Sept. 2021 after issuing an advisory for residents to drink and use bottled water.

MDHHS announced Feb. 8 it provide bottled water to Benton Harbor residents until the city's 4,400 lead lines are replaced, a goal Gov. Whitmer set for April 2023. A combination of federal, state and local grants are funding the $33 million Benton Harbor lead line replacement project.

"This community being deprived mainly because its a black city. Racism is alive and well. Environmental racism, you're looking at it," Pinkney said.

The topic of Environmental justice has risen to the forefront in Michigan in the aftermath of the Flint water crisis, which largely poor and a majority black community were exposed to elevated levels of lead in its drinking water beginning in 2014.

The modern environmental justice movement is traced to 1982 protests over a proposed toxic waste site being built in a predominately black North Carolina neighborhood.

"The conventional wisdom was people of color are as not concerned about the environment as whites. I think there's a lot of attention, momentum on environmental justice right now in Michigan and nationally," said Paul Mohai, the founder of the environmental justice program at the University of Michigan.

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies, according to the EPA definition.

President Joe Biden created an environmental justice agenda in his first year in office which called for underserved communities to see increase in overall benefits of climate clean water, and other investments.

Michigan efforts

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer formed an environmental justice response team and an Advisory Council for Environmental Justice in 2020 to address challenges related to pollution and energy access.

A number of Michigan environmental justice activists say the state is still not doing enough to protect vulnerable, low-income and predominantly black communities.

A number of environment groups sued Michigan department of Environmental, Great Lakes and Energy Friday after approving a hot-mix asphalt plant near public housing, in a low-income neighborhood in Flint.

EGLE has previously said its permit approval action highlighted the limitations of federal and state environmental regulations in addressing the concerns raised by residents. The state's environment regulatory agency called on the EPA to implement its environmental justice principals sooner in Nov. 2021.

EPA data shows people of color are more likely to live near industrial areas and breath polluted air.

Environmental justice screening tools

In 2020, Paul Mohai and his team of researchers at University of Michigan developed an environmental justice screening tool to identify “hot spots” of environmental injustice across the state.

Mohai said the tool would provide government agencies with information and data on the effects that environmental harms have on disadvantaged communities. The information gathered was used to calculate an environmental justice score for each census tract in Michigan. A high EJ score means a community has both a high risk of exposure to environmental hazards and a high vulnerability due to social factors, according to the researchers.

"The map represents the disproportionate environmental burdens and concentration of indicators--- economic, political and social disadvantage," Mohai said.

Several neighborhoods in Kalamazoo are considered environmental justice hotspots according to Mohai's screening tool. The 49007 zip code, which includes Kalamazoo's northside neighborhood is in the top 10 of census tracts with the highest EJ scores in Michigan.

"We are damaged forever"

Longtime Kalamazoo northside resident Tim Johnson is asthmatic and has COPD, a chronic inflammatory lung disease.

"We are damaged forever. We grew up in this area our whole life and didn't think living around here this would be the problem we would live and deal with everyday," Johnson said.

Johnson lives blocks from the Graphic Packaging International Plant and the city of Kalamazoo Wastewater plant. EGLE approved air permits for the carboard recycling facility's $600 million expansion last year despite a history of odor violations in a mostly Black neighborhood.

A 2020 presentation of data compiled by Dr. David Ansel, of Rush Medical Center, showed residents in Kalamazoo's predominantly black northside neighborhood have higher rates of hospitalizations for asthma than other city neighborhoods.

Federal and state health officials have been studying possible long-term impacts from industrial gases detected in the area. A long-term health assessment report studying long-term impacts from odors detected in the neighborhood is expected to be released late March.

Johnson is one of 150 area households interested in joining a class-action lawsuit against Graphic Packaging which accused the cardboard recycling plant of releasing noxious odors, air particulates, and dust onto nearby resident's property. A Graphic Packaging spokesperson has previously said its operations don't create a nuisance for nearby residents.

  • Class-action lawsuit: Kalamazoo residents express health concerns about Graphic Packaging plant odor

Since November, the EPA civil rights office has been investigating if the state of Michigan discriminated against a predominately Black community next to the Graphic Packaging International plant in Kalamazoo when EGLE approved changes to an air permit to allow an additional paperboard line at the facility in November 2020.

"It's hard to tell if it's getting better or worse because we have to breath it everyday anyway," Johnson said.

Some slow to adopt screening tools

Mohai said after hundreds of years of discrimination and damage from environmental injustice, he said local and state governments will need to keep working to make progress. Mohai's research team issued a report Feb. 1 that showed some state governments were slow to adapt to the screening tools his team and others have created.

"I think the tools will be a very important step forward although we're not there yet. We're not collecting data to see whether we're advancing environmental justice, he said.

Drinking water

Meanwhile, in Benton Harbor, Pinkney and other city residents fear the upcoming results of the EPA and state study to examine if filters are effective in removing lead from the city's tap water.

EPA and MDHHS officials sampled water in 230 Benton Harbor households. EPA officials said results to-date show encouraging signs filters have been able to remove the lead from the water. Final results from that study are expected in late February, an EPA spokesperson said.

Pinkney said the announcement could prompt Michigan officials to declare the water is safe to drink before it's too early. He estimated 40 to 50% of city residents drink the city's water despite the state's bottled water recommendation.

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"It's always the language that's important in this community. If you tell them don't drink the water out of an abundance of caution, they're still going to drink the water," Pinkney said.

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