Study Finds Environmental Racism Persists in Michigan and Around the United States

A recent study has found that while awareness and advocacy has increased over the past twenty years, environmental racism has persisted. Of the 9 million people in the United States that live within 1.8 miles of the 413 commercial waste facilities, more than 5.1 million are people of color.

A recent study titled “Toxic Waste and Race at Twenty: 1987 to 2007” has found that environmental racism continues around the United States and in Michigan. The study was prepared for the United Church of Christ as a follow-up to a historic 1987 study that documented widespread environmental racism and helped to launch the environmental justice movement.

The term “environmental racism” was defined and coined by Reverend Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr. in 1981 as “racial discrimination in race-based differential enforcement of environmental rules and regulations; the intentional or unintentional targeting of minority communities for the siting of polluting industries such as toxic waste disposal; and the exclusion of people of color from public and private boards, commissions, and regulatory bodies.” The study found that while awareness and advocacy has increased over the past twenty years, environmental racism has persisted. Of the 9 million people in the United States that live within 1.8 miles of the 413 commercial waste facilities, more than 5.1 million are people of color. People of color make up a quarter of the United States’ population, but they make up about 60% of those living near hazardous waste sites. According to the study, people of color are more concentrated in neighborhoods with hazardous waste sites than in 1987.

In Michigan, the study shows that neighborhoods that are home to hazardous waste sites are majority African American and/or people of color. Of the 19 sites in Michigan, eight are in neighborhoods that are majority people of color. Neighborhoods that are home to hazardous waste sites are 65.7% people of color compared to neighborhoods in other areas being 19.2% people of color. Michigan had the highest difference percentage difference between neighborhoods housing hazardous waste sites and those that do not. Poverty rates are higher in Michigan neighborhoods that are home to hazardous waste sites as well, with 22.9% of people in host neighborhoods living in poverty.

Overall, the study found that people of color make up 69% of the residents in neighborhoods with toxic waste facilities. Forty of forty-four states with hazardous waste sites have disproportionately high people of color in neighborhoods housing such sites, while 105 out of 149 neighborhoods with hazardous waste sites have a disproportionately high population of color. Nationwide, the percentages of African Americans, Hispanic/Latinos, and Asians/Pacific Islanders in host communities are 1.7, 2.3, and 1.8 times greater than in non-host areas. Moreover, 9 out of 10 EPA regions have racial disparities in the location of hazardous waste sites.

In order to address environmental racism, the study calls for the reversal of measures implemented by the Bush administrations that have dismantled federal environmental justice efforts. It further calls for Congressional Oversight Hearings on the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) dismantling of environmental justice policies. The EPA is also urged to implement recommendations by the EPA Office of Inspector General to develop a clear vision and a comprehensive strategic plan to establish goals and performance measures for integrating environmental justice into the EPA’s day-to-day operations. Finally, the study calls for the enactment of legislation designed to strengthen compliance and enforcement of environmental justice objectives at the federal level, address discriminatory actions by government agencies, provide leadership to the states, and to develop a legal mandate that establishes federal responsibility to advance equal protection under law in minority and low-income communities.

EPA Intervenes in Sulfide Mining Permit Process

On Monday, the National Wildlife Federation, issued a press release stating that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has notified Kennecott Eagle Minerals Company that at least one federal permit will be needed before the company can open its proposed sulfide mine near Marquette, Michigan in the Upper Peninsula. Citing concerns over the safety of drinking water in the region, the EPA sent a letter to Kennecott asking the company to submit previously requested information about a treated water filtration system proposed by Kennecott. That system–a series of pipes buried underground that allows treated water to trickle back into the ground–would impact the entire aquifer. The EPA has determined that a permit is required to ensure that the system would not “endanger an underground source of drinking water” while also stating that once the information is received from Kennecott, it will “make a determination about other potential requirements.”

Michelle Halley, an attorney with the National Wildlife Federation, is cited in the press release as believing that the involvement of the EPA will further stall the approval of the mine. The EPA would likely then hold a public comment period before making a decision. Permitting thus far has been handled by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ), who recently announced that they were looking at making their decision by May of this year. With federal permits being more rigorous than state-level permits, it is possible that Kennecott will have to perform additional research into the environmental impact of the mine.