Environmental injustice and racism in Michigan: A new MLive documentary

The Fight for Environmental Justice in Michigan is the most recent documentary release by MLive.com. To see all of MLive’s EMMY award winning documentaries, click here.

Smokestacks and semi-trucks are the persistent backdrop to life in the 48217 zip code.

The predominately minority community in Southwest Detroit is often called the most polluted zip code in Michigan.

A heavily-trafficked interstate, I-75, brings trucks heading to and from the Canadian border right through its heart. The neighborhood is home to Michigan’s only oil refinery and is surrounded by dozens of other industries, including steel manufacturing and a coal-fired power plant.

“I live within walking distance of every one of the industries,” says lifelong resident Theresa Landrum, a retired General Motors employee and cancer survivor who lost both her parents to cancer. “On a good day, I’ll throw a rock and I can hit them.”

Landrum has been an environmental justice activist for more than 25 years. Today environmental justice advocates like her say the movement is gaining momentum, aided, in part, by a widespread social justice awakening, increased awareness of public health disasters like the Flint water crisis, the worsening effects of climate change and a global pandemic.

Theresa Landrum

Environmental justice advocate Theresa Landrum stands on a viaduct overlooking Marathon’s Detroit refineryJeremy Marble

“We’re in a very good spot in terms of the number of people who are getting educated, the number of people who are interested in getting involved in environmental justice issues,” says Justin Onwenu, a community organizer recently with the Sierra Club.

Studies have shown that across the United States, minorities are more likely to live near factories or other industry, and are more likely to breathe polluted air, which has an impact on health

Paul Mohai, the founder of the environmental justice program at the University of Michigan, defines environmental justice as the right of everyone to a “clean, healthy and safe environment in which to live, work, pray and play.”

He says another important aspect of the movement is making sure communities have a voice in decisions that will affect their environment.

Paul Mohai

Paul Mohai in his office at the University of Michigan. Mohai is the founder of the Environmental Justice Program at the university, and has been researching and teaching the topic for decades.Jeremy Marble

The environmental justice movement has been around for decades. A predominantly Black community’s fight against a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982 is often considered the first environmental justice protest.

Warren County, North Carolina Protest

A predominantly Black community’s fight against a hazardous waste landfill in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982 is often considered the first environmental justice protest.Jenny Labalme

MLive spoke with Landrum, Mohai and Onwenu for a video portrait of the environmental justice movement in Michigan.

We also spoke with Michelle Martinez, who was born in Detroit and is a founding member of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. She calls environmental justice an “all hands-on deck” situation right now, because of the growing threats from climate change.

“Just because you don’t live in a toxic environment or in a community that has air pollution or water contamination doesn’t mean it’s not your problem,” Martinez said. “The Great Lakes carry this water everywhere, so if you have PFAS in your water, it’s not going to stay there. It’s going to go into the watershed. If you have a smokestack in your backyard, it’s not going to stay in your zip code, it’s going to go into the atmosphere.”

Michelle Martinez

Michelle Martinez is a Detroit native and founding member of the Michigan Environmental Justice CoalitionJeremy Marble

At the time this video was shot, Justin Onwenu was an organizer with the Sierra Club in Detroit. He’s since moved on to a summer internship at the White House Council on Environmental Quality, and will matriculate at Columbia Law School in the fall.

Onwenu says his environmental justice activism is inspired by human rights movements, including the civil rights, anti-apartheid and anti-war movements.

“I think the environmental justice movement is probably more closely rooted to the civil rights movement than the environmental movement,” Onwenu says. “The environmental movement historically has been about conservation, has been about protecting and preserving wildlife and exploration. I think the environmental justice movement is more deeply rooted in human rights. So access to clean air, access to clean water, the right to live in an environment that’s healthy as fundamental human rights.”

Justin Onwenu

Environmental justice organizer Justin Onwenu in his Sierra Club office in Detroit.Jeremy Marble

The video also includes interviews with Patricia Koman and Amy Schulz from the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

Schulz has studied the social and environmental factors that affect health in Southwest Detroit. She says the area has among the highest exposures to air pollutants from multiple sources in the tri-county area, which includes Wayne, Oakland and Macomb County.

Schultz says there’s very good evidence that the type of pollutants in the air in Southwest Detroit can be linked to increased risks of asthma and asthma exacerbations, meaning more asthma events and trips to emergency rooms. She also says air pollution in that area can be linked to increased risks of cancer, and heart and lung disease.

The video highlights the Marathon Detroit oil refinery. This year Marathon will pay an $82,000 fine $539,000 toward community safeguards following emissions violations.

RELATED: Marathon fined over rotten odors, soot emissions at Detroit refinery

But Marathon is far from the only source of pollution in the area.

Marathon tells MLive it currently operates at 40 percent below the facility’s yearly permitted emission levels, and it accounts for only three percent of emissions in the two-mile radius around the refinery.

It also points out that it has invested $350 million in environmental and safety improvements at the refinery over the past decade, contributing to an 80 percent reduction in emissions over the past 20 years.

Marathon says it’s committed to engaging with its neighbors and protecting the environment.

Marathon's Detroit Refinery

Marathon’s Detroit Refinery, the only oil refinery in MichiganNeil Blake

In Michigan, environmental justice is not only a concern in Southwest Detroit.

Paul Mohai’s students at the University of Michigan worked with the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition in 2019 to develop the first ever statewide assessment of environmental injustice. The map shows hot spots of environmental injustice, also often referred to as environmental racism, all across the state.

In Kalamazoo, residents living in the shadow of an expanding Graphic Packaging International paper mill worry about wastewater emissions from the facility, which have caused a chronic industrial stink that’s being reviewed as a public health concern.

The Kalamazoo odor issue, long seen as merely a nuisance, has sparked environmental justice concerns due to the mill’s proximity to the predominantly Black Northside neighborhood.

One notorious environmental justice hot spot in Michigan – Flint.

Mohai calls the Flint water crisis the most egregious example of environmental injustice he has ever seen.

RELATED: Flint’s water isn’t perfect, but testing shows continued reduction in lead

Flint is a predominantly minority community that Mohai says had almost no say in the decision to switch its water source to the Flint river in 2014. That decision resulted in corrosive water flowing through old lead pipes, which eventually contaminated Flint’s drinking water with lead.

But Mohai says the Flint water crisis was a huge game changer both in Michigan and nationally, raising awareness of environmental racism.

“I think it made environmental racism and environmental justice, if not a household word…I really noticed how the media started to use those terms much more freely after this story broke in early 2016,” Mohai said.

Flint Water Crisis

Flint resident Cathy Sawyer prays as more than 50 people protest on Monday, April 25, 2016 in front of City Hall in downtown Flint, showing their continued disdain on the two-year anniversary of the date the drinking water source was switched to the Flint River with the push of a button. Jake May | MLive.com Jake May | MLive.comJake May | MLive.com

That increased awareness could result in changes across the country.

President Joe Biden’s infrastructure plan includes the elimination of all lead pipes and service lines across the country.

While introducing the plan in April, the president said, “Everybody remembers what happened in Flint. There’s hundreds of Flints all across America. How many of you know when you send your child to school, the fountain they’re drinking out of is not fed by a lead pipe?”

There are other environmental justice initiatives in the bipartisan infrastructure framework currently working its way through the U.S. Congress, including plans to invest in clean energy, shore up state and local recourses against climate change-related weather events, clean up legacy contamination, and reconnect communities divided by highway construction.

Environmental justice is coming into focus at the state level in Michigan as well.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer has created the state’s first Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, and the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice.

Justin Onwenu, Paul Mohai and Theresa Landrum sit on the council, which is made up of community members, activists, experts, and members of the business community. Regina Strong, the state’s Environmental Justice Public Advocate, says the council was designed to give a holistic look at what impacts communities.

She says one of the council’s first major efforts was raising the issue of water shutoffs in vulnerable communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, leading to an executive order by the governor and eventually a bill she signed into law.

Strong says the state is also working on its own screening tool, similar to the map designed by the University of Michigan students, that should be in place by the end of the year.

“It will overlay environmental factors, socioeconomic factors, other social vulnerabilities,” she said. “It really will be our first look at a bunch of existing data in one place, overlaid together so we see what communities truly face across the state.”

She says the screening tool can be used for planning by communities and industries, by the state to make decisions about allocating resources, or even in ways no one has thought of yet.

There’s also been a bill introduced in the Michigan House called the “Protecting Overburdened Communities Act.” It’s modeled after a groundbreaking environmental justice law passed in New Jersey last year. The Michigan bill would change the way the government regulates polluting industries in communities that have a significant number of residents who are minorities, who are at or below the federal poverty line, or have limited proficiency in English.

All the activists and experts MLive spoke to for this project said they believe this is both a hopeful and urgent moment for the environmental justice movement across the country.

“There’s been this awareness for a long time and a lot of frustration that more progress hasn’t been made in the last 30 years since the Warren County protests,” said Mohai. “But I really get the sense that we’ve come to a point where people feel that this is the time that actions need to be taken that will actually bring on the ground results.”

Patricia Koman emphasized how important it is to reduce CO2 emissions now. “It stays in concentration in the atmosphere for 50 to 100 years. So that means that the emissions, the choices we’re making today will be present and causing health effects for people 50 years from now, 100 years from now.”

Theresa Landrum said it’s a time for allyship among all races. “I’m talking about white, black, brown, blue, green, whatever color, whatever ethnicity. We have to become allies to work to be good stewards to protect Mother Earth because we don’t have anything else.”

Lori Chapman is a producer on MLive’s video team. Garret Ellison contributed to this report.

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