Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition

Environmental Justice in Michigan

The people living in Michigan and Indigenous Peoples whose lands neighbor the state (including 12 federally-recognized Tribes) have been leaders in the environmental justice movement. The 1990 Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, which Bunyan Bryant co-organized and led to the formation of a “Michigan Coalition,” which advised the EPA on environmental justice policy. Conversations between the EPA and this coalition, which included Bryant and SNRE Professor Paul Mohai, eventually led to President Bill Clinton’s 1994 signing of an executive order that required all federal agencies to explicitly consider how their policies disproportionately affect the environment and health of minority and low-income communities. [some of this last sentence is cut and paste and only references UM and not activists]. Detroiters, such as Donele Wilkins, participated in the drafting of the Principles of EJ. Five Tribes fought in the 1970s and 1980s fought for Michigan to respect the 1836 Treaty of Washington, which protects Indigenous hunting, fishing and gathering rights in what 1/3 of what is now called the state of Michigan, settling on 2 consent decrees, one in 2000 (Great Lakes) and one in 2007 (Inland). Yet many difficult environmental justice issues remain for the millions of people living in Michigan and neighboring Indigenous peoples.

Other examples of current Environmental Justice challenges in Michigan:

(1) The Detroit area suffers from unacceptably high levels of air pollution. Ozone, particulate matter, sulfur dioxide, and other pollutants plague many communities throughout the region, causing adverse health impacts, such as asthma, cardiovascular disease, respiratory diseases, cancers, and premature death. The City of Detroit is hit the hardest, where residents suffer health impacts at rates which far outpace the rest of the state. Detroit residents suffer from cancer at a rate of 624.1 cases per 100,000 people, which is far greater than the state average of 553.3 cases per 100,000 people. Asthma rates in Detroit are also extremely high when compared to the state average. Adults in Detroit suffer from asthma 50 percent more often than the average Michigan adult, while asthma hospitalization rates are three times that of the state average, and asthma related deaths are twice as high as the state average.

(2)  Michigan is home to 12 federally-recognized tribes who also face environmental burdens. For example, the Keweenaw Bay Indian Community has 15% unemployment rate, a median household income of $34,974 and a poverty rate of 20.4%. Several other tribes have fought to defend some of their sacred sites against a nickel mine, which is currently being constructed over features of the landscape that have cultural and religious significance. While the tribe pursued numerous legal- and policy-based courses of action, ultimately their cultural resources have not been respected in decision-making (Bienkowski 2012). Another tribe, the Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians is fighting the privatization of 10,000 acres of state land for development of a Graymont limestone mine near Rexton, Michigan because they have both legal right to hunt, fish, and gather and unlimited access to this land for spiritual and religious purposes (SaultTribe.com)

(3) Southwest Detroit is hardest hit; the area is beset by high rates of disease, and residents report that films of metallic dust, foul odors, and other noxious fumes are commonplace. While industrial facilities in the area claim that they comply with state and federal environmental regulations, this is often not the case. The AK Steel plant, for example, has been the recent subject of 38 informal and one formal enforcement action by the Environmental Protection Agency, and a review of its emissions history by the TELC revealed over 1,600 violations of the Clean Air Act. As another example, Marathon Oil has violated its permitted limits for particulate matter and carbon monoxide emissions from various parts of its refinery.[citation from TELC needed]. Detroit is home to at least 12 facilities that were out of compliance with federal regulations by the end of 2012. University of Michigan researchers found that Detroit is home to 5 of the top 25 most polluted zip codes in the state, including 48217, which has a toxic burden level 46 times the state average” (Yu et al. 2013, 14-15).

(4) According to research conducted by the Detroit Environmental Agenda, “in 2011, over half of Michigan’s children with lead poisoning lived in Detroit” and “the city’s asthma hospitalization rate is the highest in the tri-county area.” 88% of the population of Detroit are people of color.

(5) Michigan has the fifth highest number of registered migrant and seasonal farm workers, and the number is growing (Anders 2013). Many of these workers are Hispanic and Latino. A report by the Michigan Civil Rights Commission found that these communities of workers were often “living in housing that was extremely substandard, including structural defects, lack of clean running water, exposed wires, overcrowding, close proximity to fields (and thus pesticides) and poor sanitation” (2010, 2-3). The report also documented the existence of sexual harassment, sexism, racism and discrimination against certain national origins. Working conditions were also reported to have problems ranging from lack of drinking water to insufficient (if any) break time on the job (Michigan Civil Rights Commission 2010).

(6) Pollution also affects children and education. 44.4 percent of all white students in Michigan go to schools located in the top 10 percent of the most polluted in Michigan; 81.5 percent of all African American schoolchildren and 62.1 percent of all Hispanic students attend schools in the most polluted zones. (Mohai et al. 2011).

Wayne State University to Host Environmental Justice and Law Conference

Friday January 26, 2018

Environmental Justice in Practice will focus on emerging legal issues related to environmental injustice and exploration of career opportunities.

The agenda will include expert panels on Careers in Environmental Justice, Energy and Climate Justice, Water Access and Affordability, and Urban Air Quality. In addition to the four panel discussions, there will be a lunchtime keynote address and opportunities for networking.

The conference is intended for law students, environmental law clinicians and doctrinal faculty, environmental justice practitioners, and interested members of the community.

The conference is free to attend. Lunch will be provided.

Register by Jan. 19, 2018.



MDEQ Hosts Hearing January 16

Community Packs Salina Elementary Voicing  Opposition to Natural Gas Expansion

The air was thick in South Dearborn last night, and I can only characterize the feeling in my throat as raw and chemically burned feeling after just hours in direct proximity from some of the state’s most polluting industries. People from all over SE Michigan came to voice their opinion casting moral, economic, political, and mechanical reasons WHY Michigan Department of Environmental Quality should not grant the major pollution source expansion permit  for Dearborn Industrial Generation’s new natural gas turbine.

One of the most heartening testimonies was a recent graduate of UM-Dearborn excited to get her first teaching job, receiving a position in Salina Elementary. She knew teachers didn’t last in Salina, why– because it’s hard to breathe. She described her students as coughing, constantly.

The major problem here is the burden of pollution already present in the community. And any additional burden would simply compound the injuries to their forming lung tissue. Add insult to injury, the Dearborn Industrial Generation permit opts out of the Best Available Control Technology to reduce pollution, siting cost limits, when its questioned whether they used inflated cost estimates, overlooking cheaper options. The permit also does not even consider cumulative impacts on the community, and does not use the kind of robust air modeling needed to prevent excess contamination.

This is a classic environmental justice issue and we urge MDEQ to reject this permit for a cleaner better future for all. Thank you to all the courageous  people who put time and energy into building a more equitable and just future for Michigan kids.


FALL 2017

EJ win at Detroit City Council

Residents, Environmental, Health Organizations Unite to Defeat Tarsands Waste

It’s not often that we have a victory in EJ. But thanks to all the amazing work from community members, and a historic coming together of all the communities of SW Detroit, we won an epic 4-year battle. We won historic protections for human and environmental protection against Petroleum Coke and other toxic bulk materials! From Alberta Canada to Detroit Michigan we are saying no to more toxic industry dumping their waste on the land, in the water and poisoning our communities right to breathe.

What did we win with the PET COKE fight?! The passage of a bulk storage ordinance:

  • Any facility in the City of Detroit that stores or handles pet coke, met coke, nut coke, coke breeze or coal must only store or handle it in a completely enclosed structure with an impervious floor, four walls, and a roof.
  • Any facility that stores or handles other types of general aggregates, such as limestone and steel slag, must submit a fugitive dust plan to the City of Detroit for review. The dust plan must be adequate to protect the public health and environment and to prevent the emission of fugitive dust that causes an unreasonable interference with the comfortable enjoyment of property. The dust plan must also specify what measures facilities will take to control dust emission during high wind conditions.
  • Facilities that are currently regulated by the state must describe the control measures, devices, and technologies to be used to minimize and control fugitive dust at the facility, must describe how all control measures, devices, and technologies will be maintained and calibrated to ensure their continued effectiveness, and must describe the training provided to staff regarding the proper application and operation of the control measures, devices, and technologies.
  • Facilities that are unregulated by the state must install specified dust control measures for all open storage piles, conveyors and transfer points, truck, railcar, and ship loading and unloading, roadways both within the facility and within 1/4 mile of the facility, and outgoing trucks. Unregulated facilities must also install continuous particulate matter monitors capable of detecting spikes in particulate matter emissions. If there is a spike in particulate matter emissions, the facility must report it to the City and must take immediate action to limit emissions.
  • Any outdoor storage pile must be screened from the view of adjacent roadways and properties.
  • In connection with the ordinance, BSEED also agreed to partner with the Health Department, local universities, and state and federal regulatory agencies to study ambient air quality in residential communities that are nearby bulk material facilities. Additionally, BSEED will recommend that expenditures for an Air Quality Specialist staff member and acquisition of air quality monitoring technology take place in the 2018-2019 fiscal budget.


Want to read more? Check out Katrease Stafford’s piece in the Detroit Free Press. Or listen to Nick Leonard and me on Stephen Henderson’s Detroit Today.


Governor Snyder’s Environmental Justice Working Group will be hosting Listening Sessions to gather input for their recommendations. The next will focus on Northern Michigan’s. If you are not able to attend but would like to submit comments, please email EnvironmentalJusticeWorkGroup@michigan.gov.

Northern Michigan Session

            Thursday, August 24th, 2017
            6:00 PM Reception
            6:30 PM – 8:30 PM Listening Session
            Grand Traverse Resort and Spa
            100 Grand Traverse Village Blvd, Acme, MI 49610


cropped-mejc_logo_color.pngAs a state-wide coalition, there are many issues that differ geographically, but just as often, environmental justice issues like housing quality, access to safe, green spaces, appear throughout urban and rural areas of Michigan.

Some of the most prominent issues concerning our coalition members:

Detroit Water Shut Off
Flint Water Quality
Mining in the Upper Peninsula
Enbridge Pipeline under Mackinac Bridge
Fracking in Michigan
Air Quality in 48217

Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition: Statement On Flint Water Crisis

March 01, 2016

Link to the PDF Version: MEJC Statement On Flint Water Crisis

The Flint water crisis was a preventable tragedy that has decimated an entire community. This crisis is particularly appalling because Flint is an Environmental Justice community –a community in which the majority of its residents are racial minorities, many of whom live below the poverty level, and bear the disproportionate burdens of environmental risks. As this vulnerable community continues to suffer, we at the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition are reminded of the Michigan Environmental Justice Plan, and how its implementation may have helped to prevent this catastrophe from happening.

On November 21, 2007, then-Governor Jennifer Granholm issued Michigan Executive Directive No. 2007-23 aimed at “Promoting Environmental Justice.” The Directive defined environmental justice as “the fair, nondiscriminatory treatment and meaningful involvement of Michigan residents regarding the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies by this state.” Among other things, the Directive mandated that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality establish an Environmental Justice Working Group which was tasked with creating a state Environmental Justice Plan. The Directive and subsequent Plan were both the result of years of collaboration and compromise between state government, the environmental nonprofit sector, and private industry. While the adopted Plan heavily favored industry, the environmental community was looking forward to working with the state towards environmental justice. However, the Plan has not been implemented by the Snyder Administration.

The Plan would mandate the creation of an Interdepartmental Working Group, the use of environmental justice metrics, and increased public participation. The Working Group would have required MDEQ to cooperate with state departmental leaders from the Department to Civil Rights, the Department of Community Health, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and others, to come up with collaborative efforts to respond to the concerning reports from Flint. With environmental justice metrics in place, MDEQ could have measured the severity of the threats to public health, triggering an appropriate response. Increased public participation would have served as a vehicle for transparent communication between MDEQ and the people of Flint, helping to ensure that Flint voices would not be ignored or criticized, as unfortunately happened in this case.

The state has continually ignored the concerns of Environmental Justice communities for many years. While Flint’s residents continue to deal with contaminated water, the people of Detroit continue to suffer from the most polluted air in the state. In a heavily industrialized area, which is currently out of attainment with the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Sulfur Dioxide, MDEQ is considering a permit that would allow Marathon Petroleum Corp. to increase its emissions of Sulfur Dioxide. Such a decision would yet again place an undue and unacceptable burden on the surrounding vulnerable communities who are already adversely impacted from living in the shadows of Michigan’s most polluting facilities.

We call on Governor Snyder and the Michigan Legislature to implement the Environmental Justice Plan. There are Environmental Justice communities throughout the state that face varying environmental and public health concerns every single day. Failure to take preventative measures places these vulnerable communities at severe risk of becoming the next Flint. And this is a risk that the people of Michigan simply can no longer afford to take.

To view the Michigan Environmental Justice Plan click here.



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