In a Michigan town, environmental justice is passing a critical test

Dabout 10 to 15 minutes north of downtown Detroit and you can drive through Hamtramck, Michigan, a town of about 2 square miles that is home to many communities of color, including Yemeni and Bangladeshi immigrants and African Americans. Here, in a region where nearly 70% of households speak a language other than English, a case of environmental injustice is unfolding – a microcosm of national efforts to advance health equity for generations to come.

More than 2,000 of Hamtramck’s approximately 22,000 residents live within a half-mile radius of the US Ecology Detroit North waste management facility, which processes and stores toxic heavy metals and other toxic waste produced by entities business and government. Over the years, the facility has accumulated an uneven record of environmental safety compliance. In 2016, the Detroit Free Press obtained records showing the company had racked up 150 wastewater violations since 2010, for offenses that included discharging water containing excessive levels of toxic mercury and arsenic into the system. city ​​sewer. In 2017, independent testing of public lands surrounding the facility found soil samples containing arsenic, a known carcinogen, at levels nearly 20 times above the EPA’s safe limit. (The facility has long-standing waivers that exempt it from groundwater and soil monitoring.)

Several years ago, as locals began to hear of an expansion project that would increase the site’s chemical waste storage capacity ninefold and enable it to process 30 new categories of hazardous waste, including carcinogenic aflatoxins , local activists cried foul. They filed petitions and organized demonstrations, to no avail. In 2020, after delaying its final decision and extending the public comment period, the Department of the Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, the state agency that oversees hazardous waste management, approved expansion of the facility.

A battle to protect Hamtramck residents is currently being waged by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which has filed a formal grievance with EGLE’s Non-Discrimination Compliance Coordinator. The Coordinator reviews Title VI complaints in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency regulations. In addition to violating this regulation, the legal center alleges that the decision to issue the expanded license to the US Ecology Facility also constitutes discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The grievance notes that 80% of residents within a 3-mile radius of the site are people of color.

Lawyers argue that although EGLE provided public notice of the proposed expansion, the agency did not make those notices available in the appropriate languages ​​to the many Arabic and Bengali-speaking immigrants who live near the establishment. Moreover, according to the complaint, public hearings that had been promised to be accessible in the language, at the request of residents and grassroots organizations, ultimately were not. EGLE has since released a Limited English Proficiency Plan that outlines steps the agency will take to comply with federal civil rights law and public notice requirements going forward.

Meaningful language access to legally mandated environmental information disclosures is a key component of many EPA discrimination-related regulations and complaints. But another, perhaps deeper, criticism in Hamtramck’s grievance relates to a concept that has become a permanent point of contention in environmental regulation: an idea known as cumulative risk.

A large body of research in disciplines such as toxicology and social epidemiology has demonstrated that environmental pollutants can act in conjunction with each other and that a person’s health can be negatively affected by the accumulation of risks. for health throughout his life. The nature of these risks extends beyond toxic chemical and biological exposures; Stressful socio-economic conditions, often prevalent among people of color, also pose risks to human health. These factors may act cumulatively or even synergistically with environmental toxicants to exacerbate the risk of adverse health effects.

There are reasons to believe that such cumulative risks could be disproportionate in the communities of Hamtramck and its surroundings. The city is characterized by high population density and poverty rates, two factors associated with a high incidence of chronic diseases. The predominantly black areas of metro Detroit already face high volumes of industrial pollution and have some of the highest asthma rates in the country. In Hamtramck, many Bangladeshi and Yemeni immigrants had to endure both chemical exposure and social toxicity. In addition to ongoing xenophobic and Islamophobic discrimination, some Yemeni immigrants still suffer from the psychological and biological effects of forced displacement from their home country, a war-torn nation where violence, starvation and disease are commonplace. These comorbidities and social stressors would likely be amplified by additional exposure to environmental pollution.

Additionally, Bangladeshi immigrants to the United States come from a country that has one of the highest levels of arsenic groundwater contamination in the world, and many have brought their farming traditions to Detroit, where they depend of urban agriculture. They may fear the cumulative toll that continued exposure to arsenic in groundwater and soil could have on their health.

The predominantly black areas of metro Detroit already face high volumes of industrial pollution and have some of the highest asthma rates in the country.

In its grievance against EGLE, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center argues that the agency should have assessed these cumulative risks before approving the expansion of the US Ecology Detroit North site. Plaintiffs argue that Michigan’s continued licensing of polluters who contribute to Hamtramck’s disproportionate burden of health risks is, in itself, discriminatory.

However, there are few federal mechanisms to require state and local agencies to consider cumulative risk when reviewing permit applications. EPA has spent the past year developing long-awaited updates to its framework for planning and performing cumulative risk assessments, with the goal of encouraging more focused state licensing decisions. on health, but the guidelines are not legally binding. The National Environmental Policy Act requires cumulative risk assessments only for facilities that receive federal funding, a category that excludes facilities such as US Ecology’s Detroit-North site. (Even for facilities subject to the guidance law, the law does not actually require states to base their decisions on the results of cumulative risk assessments.)

In the absence of a federal mandate, cumulative risk assessments are not standard in most state environmental regulations. This may be partly because implementing and applying cumulative risk assessments at the state level requires significant investments of time and resources: stakeholders must agree on all aspects of these complex analyses, of the types of stressors that a risk assessment must take into methodology to estimate how a new activity might increase risk at the population level.

Yet these obstacles have not prevented some states from formally integrating cumulative risk assessment into their environmental protection laws. Some states limit these laws to certain types of broadcasts; New York, for example, applies cumulative risk assessments for air pollution. But other states, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, have adopted broader cumulative risk measures and include community engagement mechanisms. The Hamtramck case illustrates why it is so important that more states follow their lead.

The outcome of the grievance filed on behalf of the residents of Hamtramck is still pending. But it seems clear: Decades of science have shown that the health risks of environmental pollution, especially in marginalized communities, cannot be measured in toxicity levels alone. Until lawmakers formally codify this principle into law, environmental justice will continue to prove elusive for marginalized communities like those in Hamtramck.


Farah Kader is a New York-based research analyst. She holds a BA in Public Health from the University of California, Berkeley and an MPH in Environmental Health Sciences from the University of Michigan.

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