UM study reveals hot spots of environmental injustice across Michigan

ANN ARBOR—A new study by a University of Michigan student team has identified “hot spots” of environmental injustice across the state.

U.S. Census tracts in Detroit, Grand Rapids, Flint, Saginaw, Lansing and Kalamazoo are among the hot spots identified in the study, which was released Thursday, July 25.

Those census tracts scored highest on a measure of environmental injustice, devised by three UM graduate students, comprised of 11 environmental indicators and six demographic indicators. A high EJ score means that a community has both a high risk of exposure to environmental hazards and a high vulnerability due to social factors, according to the researchers.

The locations with the highest scores are census tracts with large concentrations of minority residents, high levels of poverty and unemployment, low educational attainment, and other indicators of social disadvantage, according to Paul Mohai, a professor at the UM School for Environment and Sustainability who advised the students.

Those same places also have the greatest concentration of environmental burdens such as high estimated cancer risk, high levels of air pollution including particulate matter, high traffic proximity and volume, a high number of hazardous waste facilities, and a high number of federally designated Superfund cleanup sites, Mohai said.

“A key finding of this report is that 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 Mohai, one of the founders of the U.S. environmental justice movement.

Mohai has called the Flint water crisis the worst example of environmental injustice in recent U.S. history. He served on former Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s Environmental Justice Work Group, which in March 2018 submitted 33 recommendations aimed at avoiding similar crises in the future.

One of those recommendations—which led directly to the student project—was to develop a screening tool to help identify the Michigan communities that are the most vulnerable and hardest hit by pollution. The information provided by the screening tool could then be used to develop solutions to alleviate disproportionate environmental burdens across the state.

The three graduate students—Laura Grier, Delia Mayor and Brett Zeuner—developed a Michigan-specific screening tool for a project they completed in partial fulfillment of master’s degree requirements at the School for Environment and Sustainability. Their “mixed methods” study included both data analysis and interviews with 30 environmental justice leaders.

The Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition was a partner on the project. The study is the first comprehensive quantitative and qualitative assessment of the status of environmental justice in Michigan.

“Results from our mixed-method analysis reveal the need for stronger state-level environmental policy—supported by a screening tool—to protect vulnerable communities from the disproportionate impacts of pollution,” said study co-author Grier. “Our analysis makes the case for future policy decisions to be informed by the perspectives of affected community members, especially the voices of minority, indigenous and low-income residents who have historically been excluded from decision-making processes.”

For the study, the students drew on data from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Census Bureau.

They also investigated methodologies used in several existing environmental justice screening tools: EJScreen, used by the U.S. EPA; CalEnviroScreen, used by the California Environmental Protection Agency; and Story Map and What’s in My Neighborhood, both used by the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency.

The information gathered by the students was then used to calculate an environmental justice score for each census tract in Michigan. The scores were used to create maps that revealed hot spots of disproportionate exposure to environmental hazards, as well as high vulnerability due to demographic factors.

Of the 10 Michigan census tracts with the highest EJ scores, five are in Kent County and include portions of Grand Rapids, three are in Wayne County and include parts of Detroit, and two are in Kalamazoo County and include parts of the city of Kalamazoo.

“We urge the state of Michigan to adopt this screening tool as its own, to help identify Michigan communities that are hardest hit by pollution and to adopt solutions to alleviate the disproportionate burdens that those communities bear,” said Michelle Martinez of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

The 11 environmental indicators used in the study are: air toxics cancer risk, air toxics respiratory hazard index, diesel particulate matter level in air, ozone level in air, PM2.5 (extremely fine soot) level in air, traffic proximity and volume, lead paint indicator, proximity to National Priority List sites financed under the federal Superfund program, proximity to risk management plan facilities, proximity to treatment storage and disposal facilities, and a wastewater dischargers indicator.

The six demographic indicators used in the study are: percent minority residents, percent living below two times the federal poverty level, percent unemployed, percent less than high school education, percent in linguistic isolation, and percent housing-burdened low-income households.

Over the years, several definitions of environmental justice have been advanced, including one from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin or income with respect to the development, implementation and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies, according to the EPA definition.

For the executive summary of the report, click here.

For the full report, click here.

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