Environmental Justice Still an Elusive Concept

A draft of the Michigan Environmental Justice Plan was released for public comment on Dec. 11, 2009. Reading it took me back to the days I worked on environmental justice issues while serving as director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality.

Gov. Jennifer Granholm issued her Executive Directive "Promoting Environmental Justice" on Nov. 21, 2007. In it, environmental justice is defined as "fair, non-discriminatory treatment and meaningful involvement of Michigan residents regarding the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies by this state." While environmental justice may be relatively easy to define, it is difficult to implement.

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The environmental justice movement is a confluence of the civil rights and environmental movements that had a pronounced influence on public policy in the 20th century. Environmental justice advocates claim that minority communities are discriminated against and bear a disproportionate impact from emission-emitting facilities located in or near their neighborhoods.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency attempts to enforce environmental justice claims through Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Three environmental justice claims were filed against the MDEQ while I was director. EPA never issued a decision on the Genesee Power permit and EPA found in favor of the state in the Select Steel and Romulus deep-well injection permits.

Environmental permitting requirements are prescriptive and contained in federal and state laws and regulations. Environmental permit applications are initiated by parties desiring to operate facilities; not state environmental regulators. It is unrealistic to assume that environmental regulators are intentionally discriminating against minority communities in the location of facilities that require an environmental permit because site location decisions are the prerogative of permit applicants - not the state.

Labeling communities as environmental justice areas and requiring layers of additional bureaucratic red tape to locate new businesses in those areas is a bad idea that will only serve to hurt the people the rules are designed to help. The last thing we need in Detroit or other Michigan urban areas is to create new obstacles to development and the much needed jobs that come along with it. The environmental permit requirements that ensure public health is protected should be the same no matter whether you live in Detroit or in the Upper Peninsula.

The state should encourage applicants to proactively engage local communities and seek their input early in the permitting process. This is good business everywhere, especially in urban areas.

As elected officials and state bureaucrats put policies in place to deal with environmental justice, they need to be careful they do not perform more harm than good. Policies that place additional barriers on businesses attempting to locate in Michigan will not lead necessarily to a higher quality of life for urban dwellers, but could contribute to the decay and hopelessness that is all to obvious in many inner city areas as business and the jobs they provide flee to friendlier locations with fewer regulatory hurdles.