Local advocates aim to make ‘cumulative impact’ a factor in air quality regulation

Advocates are pushing for regulators to consider cumulative impact – the idea the totality of environmental threats affecting a community should be considered in permitting decisions – which is not typically how environmental permitting decisions are handled today.

As the executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, Raquel Garcia is well aware of the consequences of living and working in a part of Detroit that’s both the site of a busy international border crossing and has a high concentration of heavy industry. 

Southwest Detroit residents like Garcia are regularly exposed to a steady stream of exhaust from trucks and trains traveling to and from Canada, as well as emissions and dust related to a wastewater treatment plant, a major oil refinery, an asphalt plant, and numerous factories. 

“I feel we’re fighting from multiple fronts all the time,” Garcia told Planet Detroit. “It’s a never-ending battle. It’s exhausting because every week there’s some new permit, some new industry doing something else.”

Garcia’s work draws upon a concept called cumulative impact – the idea that regulators should consider the totality of environmental threats affecting a community rather than focusing on individual sources of pollution – which is typically how environmental permitting decisions are handled today.

It’s an approach that Kathryn Savoie, Director of Equity and Environmental Justice for the Southeast Michigan-based Ecology Center, feels is well-suited for addressing the situation in Southwest Detroit where residents must contend with many different types and sources of contaminants. 

“When we talk about cumulative impact, we’re talking about the accumulation of various sources of pollution altogether affecting our communities,” Savoie told Planet Detroit. “None of this is really taken into consideration in our policies and regulations in a way that actually protects Southwest Detroit or other parts of the city.”

The close proximity of so many sources of airborne toxins has led to dire outcomes for those living in Southwest Detroit and other parts of the city. A 2016 Community Action to Promote Healthy Environments (CAPHE) study concluded that the combined exposure to all sources of air pollution in the Detroit area was responsible for 721 premature deaths annually and 1,500 hospitalizations for respiratory and cardiovascular disease each year.

But to understand the concept of cumulative impact in a legal sense, it’s important to know how the law is currently set up to regulate environmental concerns connected to pollution, according to Nicholas Leonard, Director of Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, a legal advocacy group. 

Typically, Leonard says, a company that releases potentially hazardous substances into the air wants to either build a new facility or expand an existing one, requiring an air pollution permit. 

“To get that permit to install, they have to demonstrate that their emissions won’t cause a violation of any state or federal air quality laws or regulations,” says Leonard. “What they often don’t have to do is show how their contribution to air pollution may combine with other sources of air pollution to create a public health risk, so that’s when we talk about cumulative risk.” 

Leonard is quick to point out, however, that there isn’t any strictly agreed-upon policy definition for the concept of cumulative impact. Some see it simply as exposure to multiple environmental contaminants, while others consider demographic factors like income level, race, and English proficiency.

According to Leonard, cumulative impact hasn’t been explored much in terms of policy, partly because it’s such a different perspective than the one guiding the current legal framework.

“The tricky part with cumulative impact analysis is: how do you come up with a clear decision-making framework for something so complex,” says Leonard. That’s a very challenging thing to do.”

A different approach

Over the last few years the concept of cumulative impact has started to gain traction in policy and regulatory circles. 

In 2020, New Jersey became the first state in the country to enact a cumulative impact permitting law, which requires the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection to make an assessment of public health and environmental risks for operations planning to expand or renew licensing in overburdened communities, defined as “ low-income, minority, or low-English proficiency communities. 

And the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency took a big step last month, when it issued its first-ever legal guidance on cumulative impacts. In an addendum issued on January 11, the agency shared guidelines intended to help EPA legal authorities “identify and address cumulative risks through a range of actions, including permitting, regulations, and grants, to consider the lived experience of communities overburdened by pollution and advance environmental justice.”

In Michigan, State Sen. Stephanie Chang recently introduced SB 26, requiring fines for air quality violations to go to communities most impacted by environmental injustice. 

Chang, whose district includes Detroit and the Downriver metropolitan area, has put forward several proposals, including one that would have mandated “disparate impact” studies for air pollution discharge permits in a zip code with 35 or more active permits and require a public hearing before issuing those permits. That proposal did not progress, but the issue is still at the forefront of her attention as a state senator whose party now controls majorities in both houses of the state legislature.

“Legislation focused on environmental justice, particularly the way the air pollution affects our most vulnerable residents, has been a top priority for me as a state lawmaker ever since I took office,” Sen Chang told Planet Detroit. “If we as a state were to pass cumulative impact legislation, we could dramatically impact Michiganders’ ability to breathe clean air and have a good quality of life.”

Local groups are also increasingly starting to band together to address environmental threats while taking the concept of cumulative impact to heart.

For the past few years, CAPHE, a community-based participatory research partnership connected with the University of Michigan, has been working to develop and implement a science-based, public health action plan to reduce air pollution. The project is rooted in a cumulative impact framework and partners with the Ecology Center and Southwest Environmental Vision.

CAPHE has also compiled a summary of legislative recommendations based on state policies that incorporate a cumulative impact framework. They recommend using a comprehensive cumulative impact index to identify communities with high cumulative impact;  requiring health impact assessments to be conducted for new permits and substantial modifications to facilities; creating an Air Quality Enforcement Fund to support funds to communities designated as high on the CI index; increasing enforcement of permit violations and use fines for violations in communities with high Cumulative impact index scores; and developing clear mechanisms for accountability to environmental justice communities.

The Ecology Center is also working with other groups to launch an as-yet-unnamed coalition to collaborate on air quality issues in Wayne County, which has identified addressing cumulative impacts on local communities as a top priority.

Savoie and Garcia hope that with new tools and effective organizing, local and state policy can be enacted that will take the insights of cumulative impact frameworks and use them to help protect already overburdened communities from further environmental harm.

“I know it’s possible,” says Garcia. “I know we can come up with solutions. We just have the political will to do the work to get to the other side of it.” 


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