EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy will be in Ann Arbor this Thursday, September 26 to give the opening keynote for the Environmental Law and Public Health Conference at the University of Michigan. The conference is sponsored by Michigan Law's Environmental Law and Policy Program and Environmental Law Society. The conference will explore the relationship between environmental protection and public health, with panels focusing on children’s health, industrial siting, and urban agriculture. Conference proceedings will be available online after the event.
***Update*** – report on conference panel on industrial siting by Erica Shell (B.A., Vanderbilt University; M.A., University of Detroit Mercy; J.D., Wayne State University Law School, expected 2015):
The industrial siting panel included Mr. Adam Babich, an attorney and law professor who works in the Tulane University Environmental Law Clinic, and Ms. Rhonda Anderson, a representative of Detroit’s Sierra Club chapter and community organizer in the 48217 zip-code. Ms. Alicia Alvarez, a University of Michigan Law professor, moderated the panel.
Both Ms. Anderson and Mr. Babich identified racial and economic inequalities as the source of industrial siting decisions back in the 1950s and 1960s. Mr. Babich showed several photos of industrial sites within 50 yards of residential neighborhoods in Oakville, Louisiana, a historically black and impoverished community. Mr. Babich also noted the ways that pervasive economic challenges in Louisiana have led to unwise siting decisions due to citizens’ desire for jobs.
Ms. Anderson discussed how low-income communities often expect that the US EPA and Michigan Department of Environmental Quality will do something to protect them from industrial contaminants but that these agencies often prove uncooperative and disinterested. Ms. Anderson mobilized the 48217 community due to its proximity to the Severstall plant, Marathon refinery, US Gypsum, US Steel and the Edison coal plant. Ms. Anderson’s efforts were stimulated by Marathon’s $2.2 million dollar Oakwood Heights expansion, which resulted in over $800 million in tax abatement. Ms. Anderson and the Sierra Club attempted to get tax abatements for citizens living nearby, but were ultimately unsuccessful. They did succeed, however, in having the area studied for a possible cancer cluster (results pending).
A common theme throughout was that the cost benefit analysis that takes place before industrial siting decisions are made fails to consider whose costs and whose benefits. Local citizens feel disempowered in permitting decisions by the DEQ, and courts will often defer to the agency in disputes. Furthermore, after Alexander v. Sandoval, 532 U.S. 275 (2001), citizens are not empowered to use civil rights law against disproportionate impacts to enforce EPA mandates.
Both panelists identified community education efforts and mobilization as key to combatting poor industrial siting decisions and continued environmental injustice in urban communities. Ms. Anderson identified Detroit Digital Justice, an alternative media group, as instrumental in spreading awareness of the issues residents face in 48217. Both panelists also agreed that university studies and imaging such as TRI release maps serve as helpful tools for knowledge transmission and community empowerment. Without community involvement, the panelists agreed that possibility for positive change was very unlikely.