EPA to review Michigan approvals for industrial plants in Flint, Detroit

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DETROIT, MI – Federal officials are investigating whether regulators discriminated against predominantly black communities when approving pollution permits for an auto plant in Detroit and a proposed plant in asphalt near Flint.

On March 11, the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) said it would consider whether the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) should have looked more broadly at the emissions around the two facilities, which has angered neighboring residents who say they are already overloaded with toxic industrial pollution.

The letters were sent to EGLE director Liesl Clark following the agency’s approval of permits for the controversial Ajax Materials Corporation to build an asphalt plant near a low-income housing project income from Flint, and for FCA Stellantis to operate a Jeep assembly plant in Detroit.

A similar EPA review began last fall in response to a civil rights lawsuit filed against EGLE for approving an emissions permit for the expanded Graphic Packaging International recycled paperboard plant. last year in the Northside of Kalamazoo.

The attorneys filed the complaints with the EPA’s Civil Rights Compliance Office last year, claiming the state permit approvals violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

“What we are essentially alleging is that EGLE has not verified that its decision to issue these permits complies with civil rights regulations,” said Nick Leonard, director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which , alongside EarthJustice, filed the complaints on behalf. of angry residents in Flint and Detroit.

In Flint, a coalition of activist groups say endorsing emissions from the Ajax plant near Genesee Township and the Flint border on East Carpenter Road amounts to environmental racism. They also sued EGLE and filed a similar complaint with the Federal Department of Housing.

Flint residents traveled to the state capital in October to hold a mock funeral to commemorate the neighborhood’s death. In February, Flint City Council voted 8-0 to allow city attorneys to also challenge the air license granted to Ajax.

In Detroit, a group called Justice for Beniteau Residents says the state failed to analyze the cumulative impact of air pollution from other sources when it approved emissions permits for a resort. Stellantis factories on Detroit’s east side, including the former Mack Avenue engine complex that was being expanded using hundreds of millions in state and local tax incentives.

The plant, Detroit’s first auto assembly plant in decades, borders homes in the Beniteau neighborhood where numerous complaints from residents about foul industrial odors have prompted several violation notices from EGLE, which plans to impose a fine to the car manufacturer.

In a statement, EGLE said it welcomed the EPA’s review.

“Michigan EGLE looks forward to the EPA’s review of Michigan’s licensing decisions and processes to ensure the state is doing everything in its power to protect vulnerable communities and receive guidance from the EPA to do this as efficiently as possible,” EGLE spokeswoman Jill Greenberg said.

The EPA said it is reviewing whether EGLE’s “criteria and methods for administering its air permitting program, including its exercise of authority (…) have the intent and/or effect of submitting persons to discrimination based on race, color and national origin”. Acceptance of a complaint “in no way equates to a decision on the merits,” the EPA wrote.

“Rather, it means that the complaint has met the criteria for jurisdiction. This does not constitute an assessment of the veracity of the allegations nor does it represent a conclusion as to whether a civil rights violation has occurred,” the agency wrote.

Leonard said such civil rights investigations can take years, but could be prevented either by informal settlement or a formal dispute resolution process.

The Flint and Detroit reviews involve similar questions about how EGLE chose to interpret its power to issue permits for industrial facilities that did not take into account cumulative air pollution from other local sources beyond separate facilities from Ajax and Stellantis, Leonard said.

Advocates urged the state in each case to consider cumulative impacts, Leonard said.

“We have indicated specific rules that we believe EGLE can rely on to perform this type of analysis,” Leonard said. The state has an obligation to do so under federal civil rights law, he argued.

Leonard said defenders were “largely ignored” in the Stellantis review, but EGLE disagreed with the findings on cumulative impacts in Flint.

Leonard said EGLE Director Clark wrote to the EPA after issuing Ajax’s license asking for advice on how the state should address these thorny licensing issues.

This indicates a “genuine interest,” he believes, on the part of EGLE in making decisions that align with changing cultural mores in the area of ​​environmental justice, a social movement that seeks an equitable distribution of environmental benefits and burdens, independent of race and other social factors.

At the federal level, environmental justice is at the center of the Biden administration‘s efforts to change course at the EPA after years of Trump administration.

“The trick is to translate these lofty ideas and notions outlined in the regulations and operationalize them in specific ways in the licensing process to accommodate all of the lived realities of these community members,” Leonard said.

“They’re both showing up (EPA and EGLE) and we’re all standing in the middle, saying ‘you’ve got to do something,'” Leonard said. “I think that’s where we are still at.”

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