EDF Health

Environmental Justice and community organizing: A conversation with Eric Ini of Michigan United

For the better part of the last decade, Eric Ini has worked with communities fighting for environmental justice. Human health is inextricably linked to the environment in which we live. And health disparities exacerbated by local pollutants are often tied to entrenched inequities and injustices. 

As a campaigner with Greenpeace in Africa’s Congo Basin, Eric helped local communities preserve rainforest sought for palm oil plantations. Last year, he joined Michigan United, drawn to the group’s work to protect the health of frontline communities after its members helped pressure Marathon Petroleum Corporation into paying $5 million to buy out residents in the predominantly black neighborhood of Boynton affected by years of pollution from the company’s refinery in southern Detroit. 

Now Michigan United’s environmental justice director, he is part of a coalition opposed to the state’s permitting of an Ajax Materials Corp. asphalt facility near Flint, Michigan and demanding action to protect public health. The state Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) granted the permit last year, despite overwhelming opposition and calls from the federal EPA to evaluate the cumulative impact on the surrounding community of emissions from the Ajax facility and the many industrial facilities already in the area. 

I sat down with Eric to hear more about his environmental justice efforts and the lessons he’s learned in his work with communities, governments, and companies on multiple continents.    Read More »

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NEPA requires water utilities to evaluate potential discriminatory effects before starting work that disturbs lead pipes

Tom Neltner, Senior Director, Safer Chemicals Initiative; and Jennifer Ortega, Research Analyst

Providence Water, Rhode Island’s largest water utility, has applied for state funds to rehabilitate drinking water mains in its service area. Lead service lines (LSLs) are often attached to the mains and carry drinking water to customer’s homes. The utility has requested a “categorical exclusion” from the basic environmental assessment requirement for projects seeking money from the State Revolving Loan Fund (SRF). We believe the exclusion is not appropriate and have sent a letter to the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) asking it to deny Providence Water’s request.

As part of its work, Providence Water apparently plans to replace LSLs on public property and give customers the option to accept a 10-year interest free loan to replace the LSLs that run under their private property. However, this practice forces customers to choose between paying for a full LSL replacement or risking greater lead exposure from the disturbance caused by a partial LSL replacement. It is also the basis of a civil rights complaint that Childhood Lead Action Project (CLAP), South Providence Neighborhood Association, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, National Center for Healthy Housing, and EDF filed with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in January.

EPA, which allocates grants to SRF programs has begun to investigate the civil rights issues raised by the complaint, which demonstrated that Providence Water’s practices disproportionately and adversely affect the health of low-income, Black, Latinx, and Native American residents by increasing their risk of exposure to lead in drinking water.

Under federal and state National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) regulations, SRF projects are not eligible for a categorical exclusion where an “extraordinary circumstance” is present. The discriminatory effects of Providence Water’s LSL replacement practices represent such a circumstance, and the utility should not be eligible for a categorical exclusion unless it changes its LSL replacement practices. Read More »

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Update: EPA agrees to investigate civil rights allegations against Providence Water’s LSL replacement practices

Jennifer Ortega, Research Analyst, and Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

At the start of this year, Childhood Lead Action Project (CLAP), South Providence Neighborhood Association, Direct Action for Rights and Equality, National Center for Healthy Housing, and EDF submitted an administrative civil rights complaint to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) against Providence Water Supply Board (Providence Water), Rhode Island’s largest water utility. The complaint alleges that the water utility’s lead service line (LSL) replacement practices put Black, Latinx, and Native American residents at a disproportionately higher risk of lead exposure, in violation of Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

We are excited to share that EPA’s External Civil Rights Compliance Office (ECRCO) accepted “for investigation [the] administrative complaint filed against the Providence Water Supply Board.” ECRCO “determined that the complaint meets the jurisdictional requirements” needed to examine the claims. The Office made its decision only five weeks after the administrative complaint was submitted, far quicker than the timeline for most other complaints.

ECRCO will now investigate whether Providence Water’s LSL replacement practices have the effect of discriminating against certain customers on the basis of race and national origin. The Office will also examine whether Providence Water properly administers procedural safeguards to ensure the utility is complying with non-discrimination regulations, as required for recipients of EPA funding. ECRCO has 180 days to issue its preliminary findings.

To our knowledge, this decision marks the first time ECRCO has agreed to examine a water utility and the all-too-common practice of requiring customers to pay to replace LSLs on private property as a potential civil rights violation. Read More »

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In latest act of leadership, Cincinnati votes to cover the cost of replacing lead pipes for all residents

Tom Neltner, Chemicals Policy Director

The Cincinnati City Council has voted unanimously to authorize Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) to pay 100% of the cost of replacing private lead service lines (LSLs) that bring drinking water to customers’ homes and other buildings. The Council’s December vote supports its larger strategy to “provide quality healthy housing for all income levels.” More broadly, the action is the latest act of leadership from the city as it works to address the environmental justice issues in its communities.

The ordinance gives GCWW the authority to help more customers pay to fully replace LSLs as the utility conducts infrastructure work on drinking water mains that connect to the lead pipes. Since 2017, the utility has subsidized up to 40% of a customer’s replacement cost through grants, and allowed customers to take a 10-year, interest-free loan.

Despite these incentives, the utility recognized that the cost of replacement was an obstacle for many customers, especially for low-income residents. About 60% of customers declined to participate, leaving them with partial LSL replacements that left lead pipes on private property in place. These partial replacements create higher short-term spikes in lead levels in drinking water and do not reliably reduce the risk of lead exposure over the long-term, as full replacement does. This is an important step for Cincinnati, as it ends LSL replacement practices that force customers to share in the costs that can lead to environmental justice and civil rights issues. Read More »

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Flint area residents raise the bar on raising 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. Read More »

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