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It’s not just Flint: Poverty is bad for your health in Michigan, study finds

Five years after regulatory blunders exposed Flint residents to lead-tainted water, a University of Michigan study has flagged “hot spots of environmental injustice” across the state where residents are most vulnerable to pollution. 

Those include neighborhoods in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Saginaw, Lansing and Kalamazoo, where mostly low-income people of color are routinely exposed to high levels of air pollution and live near highways, hazardous waste facilities and federally designated Superfund cleanup sites.

Census tracts in those cities scored highest on an index of environmental injustice, devised by three graduate students, that included 11 environmental indicators and six demographic indicators, according to the report published Thursday morning.

A growing body of research shows that lower-income communities of color are more likely to endure pollution. Members of the environmental justice movement have sought to flag those communities and give them a louder voice in permitting and other decision making.

The study mapped such disparities across the state, drawing on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Census Bureau. Researchers hope it will inform Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s administration as it prioritizes environmental justice for the first time in state government. 

“Environmental injustice exists across Michigan, with residents of low-income and minority communities disproportionately burdened by environmental contamination and health risks—just as we saw in Flint,” said Paul Mohai, a professor at the U-M School for Environment and Sustainability. He is a leader in the environmental justice movement and advised the students on the study. 

 

The study found that Kalamazoo, Kent and Wayne counties are home to nearly all of the most at-risk census tracts, where there are large concentrations of people of color, high levels of poverty and unemployment and lower levels of education attainment.

The study recommended the state should adopt its own map of environmental injustice hot spots. Other states, including California and Minnesota, have adopted such tools to guide decision-making and understand what communities might need more public health resources. 

Mohai has called the water crisis in Flint, a majority black city where 41 percent of residents live in poverty, the “most egregious” example of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history. 

The city, led by an emergency manager appointed by then-Gov. Rick Snyder, switched drinking water sources to the Flint River in 2014 to save $5 million. The state approved the change but didn’t require any treatment to control corrosion of aging water mains, a measure that would have cost less than $40,000 per year. The highly corrosive Flint River rusted the mains, causing lead to leach into drinking water, exposing families to the neurotoxin that damages development of the brain and nervous system. State regulators first ignored the problem, then tried to discredit whistleblowers.

Though testing shows lead levels in Flint’s water have since decreased dramatically, many residents still don’t trust their taps — or their government

Mohai served on former Snyder’s Environmental Justice Work Group, assembled following the Flint saga. Last year, the group submitted 33 recommendations to avoid future crisis and rectify ongoing injustices statewide. His students’ research flowed from those recommendations. 

In previous research, Mohai that found 82 percent of Michigan’s black public school students and 62 percent of Hispanic students attended schools in areas with high levels of industrial pollution, compared with 44 percent of white students.

Industrial pollutants tallied in that 2011 study included lead, manganese, sulfuric acid, nickel and chlorine, chemicals "suspected of producing a wide variety of health effects, including increased risk of respiratory, cardiovascular, developmental,and neurological disorders, as well as cancer."

Thursday’s study builds on such findings. 

“We are hoping the state will take notice of this,” Mohai said.

Regina Strong, who Whitmer in April appointed as the state’s first environmental justice public advocate, told Bridge she is paying attention. 

“It absolutely is good for us as we start developing how, as a state, we’re going to be looking at environmental injustice hotspots,” said Strong, a longtime environmental activist in Detroit. 

Whitmer created Strong’s position while transforming the Department of Environmental Quality into the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. The new department also houses a team — composed of agency directors across state government — to draw a statewide environmental justice plan.

That team has been meeting monthly to move forward on that goal and continue looking at recommendations from Snyder’s post-Flint work group, Strong said. 

“This report helps move us in that direction,” she said. 

Some Republicans in the Legislature have questioned Whitmer’s new focus on environmental justice, including how she defines the concept and whether it affects state permitting. 

Amber McCann, a spokeswoman for Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, said he “is open to a conversation regarding environmental justice and how we define that in Michigan. Senator Shirkey believes the topic requires more discussion and explanation.” 

Strong said her efforts won’t alter state regulations. Beyond mapping injustice and responding to complaints, she said, her role is broadly a “convener” in affected communities and the business community. 

“Maybe you’ll be talking to people that you haven’t talked to before as you make your decisions around your business,” she said. 

Bridge staff writer Mike Wilkinson contributed to this report.

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