February 12, 1999

Is the Environmental Justice Controversy Sympathetic of a Larger Problem?

by Maunda Burke, Consultant for Environmental and Public Policy

This Advisor conundrum posed by the environmental justice controversy and outlines potential solutions to this growing debate that has the business community and residents at odds in many of Michigan's and the nation's most economically depressed areas.

“Environmental injustice!” scream residents as they look at the effects of pollutants and oppose the siting of yet another industrial facility in their community. Environmental justice issues have caused Michigan residents in several urban areas to challenge businesses and industry seeking environmental permits. What really is behind these environmental justice disputes? Can Michigan’s older urban areas provide opportunities for economic growth and desperately needed jobs while still protecting the quality of life for nearby residents?

Minority Residentes Take Note

In the 1980s, minority residents of older cities began to take note that their communities were much more likely to have landfills, waste treatment plants, and other major polluting facilities than were their more affluent, neighboring suburban communities. They also noted that the few businesses wanting to locate or expand in their communities were often the ones that created the greatest environmental risks. Their concerns were heightened by the fact that the high incidence of asthma, birth defects, cancer, and other diseases in their communities had been linked to environmental factors such as exposure to hazardous chemicals and other environmental pollutants. In 1987, an African-American community in Warren County, North Carolina, first publicized an "environmental equity" issue during its fight to block the siting of a hazardous waste landfill there.

The Warren County case generated several studies that investigated the disproportionate exposure of low-income and minority populations to environmental contaminants. In 1987, the Commission for Racial Justice and the United Church of Christ conducted a national study of the racial and socioeconomic characteristics of communities with hazardous waste sites. The study concluded that three out of every five black and Hispanic Americans live in communities with uncontrolled toxic waste sites. Other studies found that environmental pollution affected not only minority communities but also low-income communities. In 1992, Robert Bullard, environmental sociologist at Clark Atlanta University, conducted a study that showed that the location of polluting facilities such as solid waste landfills was directly correlated with low-income communities.

Introduction of “Environmental Justice”

Also in the early 1990s, nearly 6,000 representatives of grassroots and national organizations from all fifty states, Puerto Rico, Chile, Mexico, and the Marshall Islands gathered in Washington, D.C., for the People of Color Summit to discuss solutions to environmental injustice in America. At the summit, they adopted the "Principles of Environmental Justice," which stressed the importance of protecting the earth and natural environment, environmental laws, education, and enforcement. Most important, they called for ethical environmental behavior and universal environmental protection. Since this conference the term "environmental justice" has largely replaced and incorporated the concerns first raised as "environmental equity" issues in the early 1980s.

Federal Government Response

The unified effort of grassroots community groups forced the environmental justice issue onto the presidential agenda. On February 11, 1994, President Clinton issued the executive order ("Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations") that calls on agencies to achieve environmental justice as part of their mission. It directed federal agencies to develop an environmental justice strategy that identifies and addresses disproportionately high and adverse human health or environmental effects of their programs, policies, and activities on minority and low-income populations.

In October 1997, Region V (Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, and Ohio) of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced interim guidelines for identifying and addressing potential environmental justice cases. These guidelines include criteria for identifying cases in low-income and minority areas and direction for considering environmental justice in matters related to enforcement, granting permits, and community involvement.

In Region V environmental justice disputes the EPA first examines the poverty level and minority population percentages of the community. If the community has two times the state’s average for at least one of these demographic elements (26.2 percent at or below poverty level income and 33 percent minority in Michigan), environmental concerns in the community will be identified and addressed as potential environmental justice cases. In addition, if the community meets or exceeds the statewide averages for poverty levels and for minorities, the EPA can use other relevant information to determine that it is appropriate to examine the issue under the environmental justice guidelines.

The guidelines require that the EPA identify potential environmental justice cases in the targeted areas and initiate enforcement actions based upon violations of federal environmental laws (Clean Air Act, Clean Water Act, etc.) or Title VI of the Civil Rights Act (nondiscrimination in federal assistance programs). Since environmental justice policy is based on an executive order rather than a statute, legal actions to assess penalties, deny a permit, seek a temporary restraining order, or permanently close a facility must be based upon the requirements and regulations authorized under existing federal laws.

The Michigan Picture

While Michigan communities falling within the EPA environmental justice guidelines could be as small as a neighborhood, the EPA focus for application of this policy in the state is most likely to be in those counties where large sources of environmental contaminates occur in combination with greater than statewide averages for poverty levels and/or minorities. Exhibit 1 lists the eight Michigan counties where sources have reported more than one million pounds of toxic air emissions in 1995 and the poverty and/or minority percentage is at or exceeds threshold levels contained in the EPA guidelines. Exhibit 2 shows the location of the 15 counties in Michigan with more than one million pounds of reported toxic air emissions in 1995. Smaller geographic areas may also reach the threshold levels for poverty and/or minorities that could trigger the application of the environmental justice guidelines.

Should Federal Policy Guidelines Be Rescinded?

There are many arguments against recent federal guidelines. In the October Detroiter, the Detroit Regional Chamber stated that the guidelines

The EPA has set up a federal advisory committee that includes a number of agency and grassroots community representatives. The committee will review the guidelines and make recommendations for improvements to satisfy stakeholder concerns. Its recommendations should be sent to EPA in March 1999.

The Real Problem: Land Use Planning

There is little debate that some of the most polluted sites, many landfills, and a majority of waste treatment facilities in Michigan are located adjacent to residential areas with concentrations of minorities and/or low-income populations. The demographics of large urban centers throughout the nation generally reflect the migration of the more affluent from older, mixed residential/industrial neighborhoods to relatively cleaner, restrictively zoned subdivisions developed after the 1940s.

On the one hand, there is growing evidence that exposure to air pollutants such as smog, volatile organic chemicals, and contaminated soil particles increases the health risks of those living closest to the sources of these environmental contaminants. On the other hand, older cities often have the highest unemployment levels and are desperate for new businesses and the jobs that they can provide. If environmental regulations or government policies discourage the siting of new businesses or impede the expansion of existing industries in older urban areas, potential new jobs are lost to area residents. Caught in the middle, local elected officials often side with new jobs. Nearby residents, at least those not directly benefiting from a new or better job, object to any new development that may add to further environmental degradation of their community

Unfortunately, even the threat of legal action or delays in essential environmental permitting decisions is enough to discourage many firms from locating in areas targeted for special vigilance by state or federal regulators. The business community views the environmental justice issue as creating yet another uncertainty that will mean delays and otherwise add costs to operations in older urban areas that do not confront them at greenfield sites in the suburbs.

Enlisting Local Support

The answer to this dilemma may not be as simple as changing the federal guidelines for considering environmental justice. Citizen action to block new developments or shut down existing facilities often results from the frustration of being unable to influence decisions that affect the quality of life in one’s own neighborhood. In their haste to attract new businesses, local officials sometimes ignore the need to establish a consensus of local stakeholders before endorsing a proposal. Affected citizens are leery of information and answers to questions provided by government officials already supporting a proposal. Even the smallest risk to the community’s well-being becomes unacceptable when it is imposed, involuntarily, on those potentially affected.

The environmental justice guidelines issued to federal agencies provide local residents in certain areas access to the power of the federal government to delay decisions on proposals that could affect local environmental quality. In the past, citizens have sought relief directly in the courts under a variety of statutes. Either the threat of oversight by a federal agency or legal action by a citizen group is often enough to discourage development with critical timelines. If the guidelines are changed to decrease intervention by federal agencies, local concerns and issues will remain unresolved and may still result in legal actions to block certain development projects.

Urban areas with concentrations of minorities and low-income populations can least afford another impediment to attracting new investments. The answers may not lie in Washington, Chicago, or Lansing but at the local level. Empowering local stakeholders to have a larger role in decisions affecting their neighborhoods is within the authority of local government. Community members must be involved in redevelopment plans. Community representatives, local officials, business interests, and other stakeholders need to agree on a vision and market development opportunities they would like to see happen. Most people are likely to chose the health of their family over higher paying jobs; however, they may accept a small risk of an environmental problem if the facts are understood and the decision for assuming the risk is voluntary.

Federal Government as Facilitator

Rather than impose a new set of barriers to development in areas with high percentages of minorities or low-income residents, the federal government should facilitate local planning efforts that encourage full participation by all stakeholders. Federal agencies, particularly the EPA, should provide an objective source of information. They should assist state and local agencies in communicating with potentially affected stakeholders on the environmental effects of potential developments rather than assume the role of super-regulator conducting independent reviews and issuing decisions. Using federal and state resources to help clean up abandoned industrial sites and encourage the redevelopment of other brownfields in older urban areas will go a long way toward reducing the human exposure to hazardous chemicals and removing the neighborhood blight that negatively affects many minority and low-income communities.

The real injustice may be that some citizens lack the information, knowledge, and other resources to influence effectively local decisions that affect their lives. The focus of federal agencies should be on more than just providing another means to stop a project or close a plant in an area in desperate need of employment opportunities. Providing resources to empower citizens to address their concerns through effective participation in local decisions will do more to address environmental injustice in the long term.

Maunda Burke researches and drafts articles on environmental and public policy issues and facilitates meetings for boards and roundtables that address sustainable development. She holds a B.S. degree in environmental studies and applications with a minor in environmental science from Michigan State University. Before coming to PSC, Ms Burke held internships with Students for an Energy Efficiency Environment, Delta Charter Township, The Washington Center for Internships, and the Michigan Democratic Party and participated in the National Ronal E. McNair/SROP Program, where she conducted research on environmental justice.

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