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Environmental advocates are outraged by the lack of regulatory reform in resolving a civil rights complaint over pollution from an Ajax asphalt plant near Flint – and some fear it could signal a similar fate for a pollution case in Detroit.
For months, the community invested time into negotiations over the Ajax case only to have state officials offer a resolution last week that was more about “optics” than “substantial change,” said Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising. Meanwhile, a civil rights complaint in Detroit is pending over an air quality permit for the east side expansion of the Stellantis plant, where residents have endured strong paint odors and pollution.
“A lot of the issues that were raised in (the Stellantis) complaint were almost identical to things that were raised in the Ajax complaint,” said Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which has worked on both complaints. “I don’t see why we would get anything more.”
Shariff told Planet Detroit, “I feel like I wasted seven months of my life” on negotiations over the complaint filed with the Environmental Protection Agency in 2021, which alleged Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) violated the EPA’s Title VI protections when approving the permit for a new Ajax asphalt plant in Genesee Township, on Flint’s northern border. The provision of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 allows for federal agencies to override state policies that disproportionately harm groups protected by the act.
Ajax opponents said it would bring more toxic emissions to a low-income, majority-Black area that’s already home to a number of industrial facilities. The company has argued its air quality permit is overly stringent.
“The purpose of this agreement is to memorialize our ongoing commitment to environmental justice,” the agency said in a statement.
But Shariff wanted the state to consider the cumulative impacts from pollution in overburdened communities, something they said the state has been complicit in its permitting. By failing to take stronger action, Shariff said, EGLE has guaranteed more children in the heavily polluted area would grow up with asthma, homes would lose value, and intergenerational wealth would decline.
Leonard said he believes this resistance to changing the state’s permitting process is likely to repeat itself in Detroit, where residents have been raising concerns about the health impacts from the Stellantis expansion for several years.
The expansion, which received around $400 million in tax incentives, led to allegations of environmental racism after it was announced in 2019. This was partially because the company planned to reduce emissions at a plant in predominantly white Warren in order to offset an increase in majority-Black Detroit.
Emissions from the Detroit facilities include volatile organic compounds or VOCs, which contribute to ozone formation, a major asthma trigger. Several ZIP codes near the plant are among the worst in Detroit for asthma hospitalizations and the citywide asthma prevalence is significantly higher than the state average.
Since the permit was issued in 2019, Stellantis facilities in Detroit and Warren have received 12 air quality violations and the Mack Assembly Plant continued to operate even though emission controls were not correctly installed. In 2022, Stellantis reached a consent order with the state, where the company agreed to pay $136,832 to the state general fund and add more pollution controls. The company recently installed a second piece of equipment to break down harmful gasses.
In 2022, Stellantis asked the state for permission to double particulate matter emissions at its east side facilities. Such emissions have been linked to heart and lung conditions and premature death. EGLE told Planet Detroit that the application is still under review.
EPA changes course
Flint advocates say negotiations over the Ajax Title VI complaint, which began in December, started out well but took a turn after the EPA abruptly dropped several civil rights investigations into regulating chemical facilities in a part of southeast Louisiana widely referred to as “cancer alley.”
The federal agency was reportedly looking into compelling Louisiana to assess whether communities were already disproportionately impacted by pollution before issuing permits for new plants. This reflected recommendations from the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Committee, which said the EPA should use compliance reviews to ensure states were meeting their Title VI obligations.
But these investigations were abandoned after Louisiana’s Republican attorney general sued the EPA for alleged abuses of power during negotiations in May. EGLE spokesperson Hugh McDiarmid said the developments in Louisiana had no bearing on the Flint resolution.
Nevertheless, the Flint resolution suggests EGLE and the EPA may have a limited desire to use civil rights law to go after polluters in Detroit.
McDiarmid said proposed regulatory changes raised during the Flint negotiations, like considering cumulative impacts from pollution in permitting, would require legislation.
“Cumulative impacts for certain emissions are already included within Michigan’s Clean Air Act program,” he said by email. “Certain requests in this area would require changes in law or statute…”
However, Leonard and others have pushed back on the idea that new laws are necessarily needed, saying EGLE already has the power under Rule 901 and Rule 228 of the Michigan Administrative Code to more strictly regulate emissions and consider cumulative impacts from pollution in overburdened communities.
“The authority is right there,” Leonard said.
Leonard hopes that the process for the Stellantis complaint results in more observable progress for those living near the facilities, but he also is confronting the possibility that given the outcome in Flint, some residents may not want to participate in negotiations.
“Do they want to go through intensive negotiation sessions and really rehash traumatic experiences with the EPA…to get to this place? I highly doubt it,” he said.
Robert Shobe, a Beniteau Street resident who lives within a block of the Mack plant, said he doesn’t trust that the state or Stellantis will address the pollution that burns his eyes and compels him to spend much of his time indoors.
Although he hasn’t noticed the paint odor as much after the company installed additional emission controls in June, he has still observed it on at least a few occasions. Stellantis spokesperson Jodi Tinson said the company hasn’t received any violations since the device was installed and that the automaker monitors for odor daily.
Yet Shobe, who is in remission from cancer and has chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, continues to worry about pollution coming from the plant.
“I personally don’t believe that they can make it safe for people to live that close to those types of chemicals,” he said.
Shobe, who is among those represented in the Stellantis complaint, still plans to engage in negotiations with EGLE and the EPA, despite the outcome in Flint. He’s hopeful that the EPA can compel the state to change how it issues permits.
“It’s a different fight,” he said. “And I definitely think it’s worth fighting.”
Back in Flint, Shariff’s focus has shifted to pursuing mitigation strategies for those living near the asphalt plant. This could include purchasing air filters and hand-held air monitors for residents as well as convening a citizen advisory committee that could report odor and pollution issues to EGLE and give input on proposed permits.
Flint groups are also pursuing a separate civil rights complaint against Genesee Township with the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development over the township’s approval of the Ajax permit. If HUD’s resolution found the municipality’s zoning was discriminatory, Leonard said, it could call into question EGLE’s permit for Ajax and potentially affect how other local governments make their zoning decisions. But it wouldn’t directly affect how EGLE regulates industry more broadly, he said.
“I was really hoping to get relief through the process with EGLE,” Shariff added about the outcome of the Ajax complaint. “The fact that the most important number attached to your name is your ZIP code because it’s going to determine your life expectancy is just a terrible reality.”