Flint area residents raise the bar on environmental justice concerns

Ugbaad Ali, Community Environmental Health Tom Graff Fellow

We all deserve to live in a healthy and vibrant community, yet many residents of Flint, Michigan, are overburdened by a lifetime of toxic exposures and environmental injustice. Recently, a coalition of environmental justice groups and community organizers in Flint used their combined power to organize against the siting of a new hot mix asphalt facility.

The Stop Ajax Asphalt Coalition was formed to protect neighboring communities from further environmental harm. The Coalition, which includes residents from Flint and Genesee Township, St. Francis Prayer Center, C.A.U.T.I.O.N, Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint, Flint Rising, Greater Holy Temple Church, Michigan United, R. L. Jones Community Outreach Center Campus, and Mi JustUs, submitted extensive comments and generated hundreds of public comments to contest the state’s permitting of a hot mixed asphalt facility by Ajax Materials Corp. near homes, schools, and parks.

Historically air permit decisions have been made in isolation, ignoring the cumulative impact from surrounding exposure sources. After hearing from the Coalition, the regional office of the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – which serves Michigan and five other states – weighed in with a letter that recommended Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) “conduct a cumulative analysis of the projected emissions from all emission units at the proposed facility, fugitive emissions from the proposed facility, and emissions from nearby industrial facilities, to provide a more complete assessment of the ambient air impacts of the proposed facility on this community.” It concluded that “because of the environmental conditions already facing this community, and the potential for disproportionate impacts, the siting of this facility may raise civil rights concerns.”

The U.S Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) regional office also  raised serious civil rights concerns in a letter to EGLE, highlighting that the proposed location is near two HUD-assisted communities housing low-income families of color – and expressing concern that EGLE failed to engage HUD on a decision that could impact HUD-assisted residents.

“This isn’t a defeat for the citizens of Flint.
We’re just getting started.”
– Anthony Paciorek, Michigan United (ABC News)

Despite the public comments and federal agency letters, EGLE approved the air permit, but with tightened requirements. The Coalition remains concerned about the siting of the facility and is committed to challenging the state to require additional measures to protect their community.

While EGLE was considering the permit, several members in the Coalition supported by Earthjustice and Great Lakes Environmental Law Center submitted a civil rights complaint to EPA alleging that EGLE violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.1 The complaint builds on issues raised in the EPA and HUD letters, arguing that EGLE’s broader permitting and enforcement practices have caused predominantly Black and low-wealth communities across Michigan to suffer disproportionately from environmental exposures and their resulting health hazards.  EPA’s website indicates the complaint is “under jurisdictional review.”

While the asphalt facility may move ahead, the Stop Ajax Asphalt Coalition is committed to continuing this fight against environmental injustice. This case highlights the cumulative environmental risks communities face and the critical need for policymakers and regulators to engage and listen to local residents to ensure equity and justice are integrated into environmental permitting decisions.

Environmental justice in air permitting

Flint is located in Genesee County, about 70 miles northwest of Detroit, where residents have historically been subjected to disproportionate toxic chemical exposure from numerous polluting sources.

“We’re all saying with one united face that this plant should not be located here… Putting it here is active environmental racism.” – Mona Munroe-Younis, Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint (The Detroit News)

The area around the planned Ajax hot mix asphalt facility consists of other industrial facilities near a diverse residential community of predominantly Black and low wealth residents. Nearly 3,000 people live within a one-mile radius of the site, including two HUD-assisted developments with 343 units within a half mile. The asphalt facility is expected to increase the already high levels of pollutants emitted around the community, including its recreation areas and children’s parks.

In public comments on the proposed permit for the facility, the Coalition argued that the proposed permit does not provide adequate protection of human health and called on EGLE to conduct a “cumulative impact analysis” as recommended by EPA Region 5 pursuant to its air permitting authority and its Title VI civil rights obligations. This analysis is essential to gaining a more complete understanding of the health and environmental implications of granting a new air permit and reversing past practices that perpetuate the pattern of societal disenfranchisement for communities of color.

In response to comments, EGLE issued a final permit with conditions that require:

  1. Removing the company’s ability to burn waste oil;
  2. Limiting the sulfur content in fuel;
  3. More stringent testing of stack emissions;
  4. Enhanced fugitive dust plan that includes additional paved areas; and
  5. Long- and short-term limits for volatile organic compounds (VOCs) including a VOC testing requirement.

EGLE also sent a letter to EPA Administrator Michael Regan defending its decision and asking him to:

  • Conduct a review of the Ajax permit;
  • Enhance EGLE’s ability to evaluate air toxics concerns; and
  • Provide additional clarity to the states on implementing federal standards in environmental justice communities.

Continuing the Fight

Thanks to the hard work of the Stop Ajax Asphalt Coalition – with support from Earthjustice and Great Lakes Environmental Law Center – an EPA regional office has gone on record recommending a cumulative impact analysis, and hundreds of voices have joined the chorus demanding greater action to protect public health. And the civil rights complaint may begin to address broader permitting issues. It’s now time for policymakers and regulators to listen to the people in harm’s way and fulfill their mission to protect the health and environment of every community.

Asphalt plant for hot mix. (Photo credit: Silverije)

[1] The group submitted a request for review of EGLE’s compliance with Title VI and, at EPA’s request, they sent an email that effectively turned the request for review into an official complaint.

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One Comment

  1. Eric Ini
    Posted December 14, 2021 at 7:50 pm | Permalink

    If EGLE was serious they could have sent a letter to the EPA request for the help the requested after making the decision. Remember, the EPA sent a letter to EGLE first, if EGLE needed help it could have suspended the decision and request help from the EPA but it did not do that, it ignored the EPA’s letter, went ahead and took the decision and send a letter to the EPA demanding for help after the fact. We are not stupid, it is know environmental racism when you think of environmental racism, just thing of EGLE.