Air Date: Week of November 6, 1998
Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency ruled that a proposed steel mill could locate in the economically depressed City of Flint, Michigan, rejecting charges brought by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and residents of Flint who claimed pollution from the plant would primarily affect minority residents. Laura Knoy spoke with reporter Emilia Askari who covers the environment for the Detroit Free Press. Ms. Askari says the case marks a turning point for environmental justice.
KNOY: Five years ago the Clinton Administration vowed to address the impact of pollution on minorities. Now, for the first time, the Environmental Protection Agency has issued a final decision in an environmental justice case. The Agency ruled that a proposed steel mill could locate in Flint, Michigan. It rejected charges brought by the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality and residents of Flint. They claimed pollution from the plant would disproportionately affect minority residents. Michigan's Governor and the Mayor of nearby Detroit welcomed the decision, saying the plant will provide 200 badly-needed jobs for the local economy. Emilia Askari, who covers the environment for the Detroit Free Press, says the case marks a turning point for environmental justice.
ASKARI: I think it's really probably a bellwether decision for the Environmental Protection Agency. I think that the Agency has been talking about environmental justice for half a dozen years and trying to move in the direction of correcting these perceived injustices, but in this case, as in several other ones recently, the Agency has backed off. And so I think that we're seeing the Agency basically putting environmental justice on the shelf.
KNOY: The EPA says this decision is based on scientific issues only. What about politics?
ASKARI: Well, certainly that played a large role in the context of this decision. What's happened here in Michigan is that our Governor, John Engler, and the Mayor of the City of Detroit, who is an African-American, Dennis Archer, have taken a very strong leadership role nationwide in opposing environmental justice. Basically, they see it as something that would really stymie development of new businesses in places like Detroit, which they fear would become a sort of city-wide environmental justice zone. Detroit is a city that's over 80% African-American, and by definition could be seen as a place where EPA would be looking at every new plant very closely as a potential environmental justice violation.
KNOY: Well, is that a legitimate concern?
ASKARI: Well, whether or not it's legitimate is sort of beside the point. It gathered great political momentum. We found the Governor of the State of Michigan holding a big news conference in Flint just eviscerating the EPA, and we saw the Democratic Mayor of the City of Detroit pretty much doing the same thing. And he is very active in the Conference of Mayors nationwide, which has taken a strong stance against environmental justice.
KNOY: Is this a backlash, Emilia?
ASKARI: Well, I would say the Agency never really did take a lot of action on environmental justice. It did a lot of talk about it. So, I would say backlash against what? Just against talk about the idea? It really never did regulate.
KNOY: Why not?
ASKARI: It's very difficult for them to prove that people of color are going to be disproportionately affected by a particular plant. You need to use census figures. You need to take circles of population within a mile, or within a few miles of the plant, and that's just not the way census figures are set up. In addition, this executive order that created the concept of environmental justice really has no strong basis in law; it's just an executive order. And so I think that regulators are finding that it's just very difficult to move forward with these cases.
KNOY: Does that give you a sense of what might be next for other environmental justice cases in the future?
ASKARI: Yes. I think that if the Agency, EPA, is really going to do any sort of enforcement on environmental justice, it'll move toward a more economic class-based look at pollution and away from looking only or primarily at race as a determination.
KNOY: Emilia Askari covers the environment for the Detroit Free Press. Thanks, Emilia.
ASKARI: You're welcome.
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