Environment Picture

Opinion: In Michigan, not everyone is equal when it comes to bearing environmental costs

Sustainable economic development is a key part of fair policies
It was no surprise to those in Michigan’s urban cities when, in 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reported that racial minorities and low-income people were disproportionately exposed to lead, selected air pollutants, hazardous waste facilities, contaminated fish, and agricultural pesticides in the workplace.

The report gave credence to what has come to be called the “Environmental Justice (EJ) movement”—essentially the marriage of social and environmental advocacy that explores concerns of social, economic, and environmental inequalities.

Since then, the government has made incremental strides to address environmental injustices: In 1992 the EPA created the Office of Environmental Justice; in 1994 President Clinton issued Executive Order 12898; in July 2007 the first Congressional hearing was held; and in November 2007, Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm signed Executive Directive No. 2007–23.

The governor’s order directs the state to develop and implement a plan promoting environmental justice in Michigan. It affirms that “state government has an obligation to advance policies that foster environmental justice,” which the executive directive defines as “the fair, non-discriminatory treatment and meaningful involvement of Michigan residents regarding the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations and policies.”

Such initiatives are important for places like Saginaw, where I live and work. Saginaw is not unique among Michigan cities facing an enormous task in tackling costly environmental health disparities created in part by proximity to polluting industries and exposure to environmental hazards like peeling lead paint from older housing stock. The city has asthma hospitalization rates considerably higher than state averages and one of the state’s largest concentrations of children with elevated levels of lead in their blood.

The Saginaw River, the watershed’s principal river, gained national attention for possibly containing the nation’s highest dioxin levels. A survey conducted by Michigan Department of Community Health (MDCH) found that minority families and their children, undeterred by the “Don’t Eat the Fish” signs mounted by government, are more likely to eat bottom feeding fish, such as catfish, from the river. Such an exposure poses greater health risk for this already vulnerable population.

It is important that we continue building awareness of the inequities borne by low-income residents and people of color in their disproportionate exposure to pollutants that cripple children and plague neighborhoods.

As stated by Drs. Paul Mohai and Bunyan Bryant, “To know that inequities exist but to do nothing about them is to perpetuate separate societies and will continue to leave the poor, blacks, and other minorities vulnerable to current and future environmental policy decisions.”

Coined by our neighbors, Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, we too must join to “Take a Stand for Our Land”—to restore and protect our God-given gift, our environment.

Let’s start by ensuring that our community leaders understand that sustainable economic development and healthy environments in our distressed neighborhoods are co-dependent and both are attainable.


Pamela L. (Pugh) Smith, MS, REHS is vice chair of the Michigan Environmental Council Board of Directors. She holds a bachelor’s degree in chemical engineering from Florida A&M, a master’s in environmental health sciences from the University of Michigan and is a doctoral candidate in its public health program.

-Pamela L. (Pugh) Smith
RELATED TOPICS: environmental justice
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