Groups urge protection from 'environmental racism' in hazardous waste placement

Christine Ferretti
The Detroit News

Environmental groups are calling on state regulators to adopt policies to put an end to Michigan's "long history of discrimination" over the placement of hazardous waste sites in poor communities of color.

The Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, in partnership with a Detroit law firm, has filed a civil rights complaint with the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, on behalf of activist groups and residents in Detroit and Hamtramck, urging the department to "protect us from environmental racism," said Michelle Martinez, director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition.

David Sole, 71, of Detroit marches against the  expansion of the U.S. Ecology Hazardous Waste Treatment and Storage Facility that boarders Detroit and Hamtramck, in Eastern Market on  June, 29, 2019.

The July 27 filing alleges a "pattern of neglect and disregard" for communities of color when it comes to the licensing of commercial waste facilities and asks EGLE to change how it analyzes and approves such request to account for race and income. 

"To put it simply, Michigan’s low-income communities of color are disproportionately bearing the burden of living near large commercial hazardous waste facilities," it reads. "These facilities serve as the dumping ground for hazardous waste that comes from all over the country."

Jill Greenberg, a spokeswoman for EGLE, said in a Monday email that the department has initiated a review process in regard to the complaint and will decide by Aug. 10 whether it warrants a formal investigation. 

"We take all allegations of discrimination seriously, and this is evident in the steps EGLE has taken over the past 18 months to ensure that all Michigan residents — particularly those who have been historically left out of decision-making processes — have a voice in their government’s actions," Greenberg said. 

The complaint comes after the controversial approval of a request from U.S. Ecology North to expand its hazardous waste storage capacity in a Detroit neighborhood where 70% of residents are low-income and 80% are people of color, the group notes. 

“For decades, companies such as U.S. Ecology have sought out communities of color for their hazardous waste facilities because they were seen as the path of least resistance for places to store, treat and dispose of our society’s poisons,” Martinez said. “We need EGLE to step up and protect us from environmental racism, or this legacy will continue for another several decades.” 

The Detroit North facility gained approval from the state in January to expand and continue its hazardous waste storage operations for the next decade. 

The agreement for the Georgia Street site also came with conditions that limit daily hazardous waste deliveries and designate a route for truck traffic. U.S. Ecology had applied for the license renewal and expansion in 2013. 

A spokesman for Idaho-based U.S. Ecology couldn't be immediately reached Monday.

In January, spokesman David Crumrine noted "safety is our No. 1 priority" and the firm had no immediate plans for storage modifications and that any future increase would be achieved without increasing the facility's physical footprint. 

The civil rights complaint argues EGLE has failed to update its hazardous waste management plan to ensure a reasonable geographic distribution of the facilities and factor demographics into its licensing decisions.

The complaint urges the state to examine whether it has committed "acts of unlawful discrimination," revise its hazardous waste management plan and amend the U.S. Ecology license to ensure the community is sufficiently protected from adverse impacts. 

The complaint points to a 2007 report from the United Church of Christ that found the percentage of people of color living in a commercial hazardous waste host community in Michigan was 66%. 

Nick Leonard of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center said 65% of people living within three miles of a commercial hazardous waste site in Michigan are people of color, despite being only 25% of the state’s population. 

“Michigan law requires EGLE to plan for the reasonable distribution of hazardous waste facilities throughout the state," he said. "We want to work with EGLE to craft a solution to this long-standing problem.”

Greenberg noted Gov. Gretchen Whitmer's creation of the first Environmental Justice Public Advocate and Clean Water Public Advocate roles and offices have "enhanced the ability of underserved communities to gain access to and have meaningful engagement with us."

In addition, she said, EGLE has increased public engagement, initiated translation protocols through the development of a limited English proficiency plan and formed partnerships with community leaders to enhance its goals of inclusivity.

"At the same time, we understand that these are only first steps toward normalizing the values of environmental justice, transparency and nondiscrimination on the structural level across our agency," she said. 

Michigan currently houses eight hazardous waste facilities permitted to accept offsite waste. According to biennial reports filed with EGLE by each facility, in total Michigan commercial hazardous waste facilities received 316,548 tons of hazardous waste in 2017, the complaint noted.

Overall, about 70% of the waste was received from out-of-state, 25% was from sources within Michigan but outside the county where the commercial hazardous waste site is located, and just 5%, it adds, was received from a source within the same county where the commercial hazardous waste facility is based. 

Alice Jennings, a founding partner of Edwards & Jennings, which has joined Great Lakes Environmental Law Center in the filing, argues despite complaints from communities over fumes, odors, dust and dirt, "the state has not created a comprehensive method for evaluating the combined total adverse impact from multiple corporations in such a small area on human health.” 

EGLE has 14 days to determine if an investigation is warranted or if other actions can be taken to address the complaint. If it does undertake an investigation, EGLE is required to report findings within 180 days.