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).



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