The dream and reality of environmental justice on display in Michigan

The aspirational environmental justice goals of Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and those of President Joe Biden were on full display last week as top executives from both administrations made the case for an increased focus on environmental justice. 

In his campaign, Biden made EJ a centerpiece embedding it in infrastructure and climate change plans. Whitmer signaled her EJ intentions in 2019 when she created an environmental justice public advocate position in her administration. The position was a product of the Flint water crisis. 

The occasion was a three-day virtual conference hosted by the Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy with members of the department, the USEPA and others participating in specific topic discussions. The sessions were not independently moderated and there was no media availability. 

Prior to the conference, EJ public advocate Regina Strong said the goal was for Michigan “to have dialogue around environmental justice that has not previously taken place in Michigan.” Michigan has a role to play in the implementation of the Biden plan, according to Strong. 

“Ground to make up” and the legacy of Flint

EPA Administrator Michael Regan spoke to begin the conference praising Michigan for its effort and said the state is ahead of the game. He said, “EPA has a lot of ground to make up.” 

Regan touched briefly on aspects of Biden’s EJ plans including replacing lead pipes that deliver water to homes, a clear reference to the Flint water crisis. Regan ended his remarks by saying that EPA will not hesitate to enforce the law, which was an ongoing criticism during the Trump administration. 

Whitmer, in brief remarks, referenced Flint saying government inaction was core to its cause and pledged that environmental justice wouldn’t be an add-on to her administration’s work, it will be integral to it. 

Prominent in the conference was EGLE director Liesl Clark who repeated an oft-used talking point that the agency is bound by laws and regulations it has to enforce, which are frequently a significant barrier to taking action on EJ issues. 

The balance of the conference, titled Rebuilding Trust, Reimagining Justice and Removing Barriers consisted of state officials and others addressing the conference title topics.

EJ advocates: Hopeful but cautious 

Veteran advocates expressed hope that environmental justice will finally receive the attention it deserves. 

But they are also aware that the federal government under President Bill Clinton first pledged a focus on environmental justice in a 1994 executive order, but little has happened since. And some of Biden’s plans, like establishing an interagency council on environmental justice echo Clinton’s initiative. 

“Detroit and Michigan are prime for an innovative Marshall Plan” initiative like President Biden is proposing, Monica-Lewis Patrick told Planet Detroit. She said it could be a model for the nation. The Marshall Plan was the U.S. initiative to rebuild Europe after the second world war. 

Lewis-Patrick is President and CEO of the advocacy group We the People of Detroit.

But Lewis-Patrick expressed a concern that money allocated by the Biden plan for environmental justice would actually reach the communities in need. Her fear is that it will be diluted by bureaucracies that exist between the funding source and the community. 

She withheld judgment of the Biden plan until more is known.

“We don’t want to judge it until it has had the time to germinate, but we also have a sense of urgency about the needs of our communities,” Lewis-Patrick said.

At the state level, Detroit’s Michele Martinez illustrated one of the barriers to environmental justice that exists in real-time.

In August 2020, Detroit residents with support from the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center filed a formal civil rights complaint with Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy. At issue is the agency’s decision to allow a hazardous waste storage site to increase capacity by ninefold.

“Michigan is number one in the nation as far as racial disparity for the citation of hazardous waste. Community residents are seeking an analysis of its impact on their health and a way out of the damage to their homes and communities,” Martinez told Planet Detroit in an email, citing a University of Michigan study.

Martinez is acting Executive Director of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition

“It remains to be seen whether we’ll reach an agreement,” said attorney Nick Leonard with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. 

“We started with the easier issues and are just now getting into the details on the tougher ones. There have certainly been moments where we have disagreed. I think we’ll have a better understanding of whether a settlement is possible in the next couple of months,” Leonard said. 

EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid told Planet Detroit that the agency “is in an informal resolution process with GLELC, has had several meetings with them working toward a mutually agreeable resolution and those meetings are continuing.” 


Mention of the Flint water crisis at the conference was largely cursory with speakers referring to it for past context, but there are still Flint issues to be resolved.

While Michigan settled the class-action lawsuit brought by Flint citizens, a $600 million negligence suit against the USEPA is still pending in federal court for its role in the crisis. 

The agency tried to have the suit dismissed claiming it was immune from the charges but a federal judge denied the request. 

With a new EPA administrator and President Biden’s emphasis on environmental justice, Planet Detroit asked the agency if it was time to settle the case as Michigan did.

Spokesperson Nick Conger declined to comment citing the pending litigation. Administrator Regan did not respond to a question on the case submitted during his presentation and he was not available to the media. 

Detroit’s Lewis-Patrick told Planet Detroit that Regan acknowledging the wrong and harm brought by the EPA to Flint citizens “would be the honorable thing to do.”

Reflecting on the crisis, Lewis-Patrick said it will always go down as one of the failures of the Obama administration in terms of how he did not address Flint in an equitable, just and fair way. It’s definitely something the EPA should address.” 

Then regional EPA administrator with responsibility for Flint, Susan Hedman, resigned under pressure when the crisis hit the national spotlight. Hedman delayed action on Flint for months while she sought a legal opinion on whether the EPA could force action on Michigan, the Detroit News reported in 2016. 

Later, President Obama’s EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy in testimony to Congress on the agency’s role in Flint declined to take responsibility. 

In 2018 the EPA Inspector General released a report citing “management weaknesses” at the EPA that contributed to a lack of oversight of Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality. The weaknesses exacerbated Flint’s problems according to the report.   

McCarthy currently has a senior position in the Biden White House working on climate change.  

Water shutoffs post-Covid-19

Michigan residents could be subjected to water shutoffs after the Covid-19 crisis ends. 

Given the direct health impact of not having drinking water, Planet Detroit asked Dr. Joneigh Khaldun from the Department of Health and Human Services what advice she had for Gov. Whitmer and the legislature on ending shutoffs. Khaldun was a presenter at a session titled Public Health Equity. 

A DHHS spokesperson did not respond to a request to comment.  

On ending shutoffs post-Covid 19, Whitmer spokesperson Chelsea Lewis-Parisio said “ultimately, the legislature must step up and work with us. It’s time to make changes to statute around the regulation of drinking water systems.” 

Two Michigan cities, Muskegon and Saginaw, announced this week they will resume shutting off water to customers for unpaid water bills.

Democratic Reps. Debbie Dingell and Rashida Tlaib have been pressuring the Biden administration to include a national moratorium on water shutoffs in pending infrastructure legislation.

Biden’s environmental justice plans are part of his multi-trillion dollar infrastructure and climate initiatives that require approval and funding from congress. Republicans have pushed back on the size and scope of the Biden plans in discussions with the White House. 

Detroit advocate Michelle Martinez is hopeful for the Biden EJ initiative but cautions that everything is up in the air.

“The plans they are putting in place are just that, plans,” Martinez told Planet Detroit.


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