A sign, placed by the EPA, warns people not to play on the lawn at the West Calumet Housing Complex on April 19, 2017 in East Chicago, Indiana. Nearly all the residents of the complex were ordered to move by the East Chicago Housing Authority after the soil and many homes were found to contain high levels of lead. Credit: Scott Olson/Getty Images

On the northwest side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where more than half the population is Black or African American, the outdated sewer system is often at capacity, and miles of asphalt and concrete make stormwater management a challenge. Sometimes, heavy rains bring flooding into the neighborhood, and members of the community have called for action to help manage their water.

Antonio Butts, the director of Milwaukee citizen action group Walnut Way, said fixing issues in such communities has huge potential to improve environmental justice. “That’s the state’s biggest opportunity for the largest return on investment because the impacts there could and will change standard of living, quality of life and economic mobility,” he said.

Wisconsin is one of the states included in a recent report by the Northeast-Midwest Institute that ranked Midwestern states in terms of their progress on environmental justice issues. Among Midwest states, Michigan ranked first, Minnesota second and Illinois third, while Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin and Indiana ranked lower, in that order. 

The report scored the states based on the existence of 11 factors like having a state agency that deals with environmental justice, environmental resolutions passed by state legislatures and providing public online tools to help communities understand environmental justice issues. Based in Washington, D.C. the Northeast-Midwest Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization formed in the 1970s to promote economic development, environmental quality and regional equity across 18 Northeastern and Midwestern states. 

While progress is being made across the Midwest, according to the institute, some community organizers say state governments have limited power to make real change happen. 

The report scored environmental justice work in the region based on criteria related to government action. States with employees, committees and programs within state government meant to deal specifically with environmental justice issues rank higher, as do states that had passed bills advancing environmental justice. The report, which also analyzed environmental justice progress in the Northeast, found that “coastal states with a high population density and high proportion of [Democratic] voters” tended to score better on environmental justice metrics.

“The Republican Party is much more business focused, and a lot of these [environmental justice] policies could definitely harm a lot of businesses,” said Nicholas Griffin, the author of the report. 

Many Midwestern states are confronted by environmental justice issues because of industrial pollution, as the waterways of the Mississippi River and the Great Lakes historically offered prime real estate for steel mills and other manufacturing facilities. Those factories brought industrial pollution that persists in some communities to this day, requiring action from local and state governments. Often, communities near industrial areas are lower-income and majority minority, meaning issues of environmental pollution in such neighborhoods are matters of racial and economic justice, as well. 

Balancing Industry With Health and Environmental Concerns 

Along Indiana’s northwest Lake Michigan shores, discharge from steel plants, mills and other manufacturing businesses into tributary rivers threaten the health of nearby residents, said Paula Brooks, environmental justice program manager for the Hoosier Environmental Council, an environmental advocacy group based in Indianapolis.

State agencies in Indiana, said Brooks, may want to enact more policies to improve environmental justice. Since the state legislature is controlled by a Republican supermajority, though, progress on such issues can get blocked. “You always have business or industry really advocating for the loosening of regulation,” she said. “But then, there are also health impacts that need to be taken into consideration.” 

Meanwhile, Iowa has struggled to keep its water quality issues under control due to the state’s agriculture industry, said Brian Campbell of the Iowa Environmental Council. Communities with higher immigrant populations, like Perry and Storm Lake, especially struggle with the cost of upgrading water infrastructure, he said. 

“The state government could do a lot more,” said Campbell. “There’s been exciting environmental justice policies in a number of states around the country, and ways that state agencies have started to think about environmental justice in their processes and make sure that diverse stakeholders are well represented in decision making. I think there’s a long way to go to build that up in Iowa.”

Engaging the EJ Community 

According to the report, Midwest states that have made the most progress regarding environmental justice work have done so with dedicated offices within state agencies responsible for overseeing such issues. For example, Michigan’s Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate was formed by Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office in 2019 and helped create the state’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which brings grassroots organizers, tribal representation, community members and industry representatives together to advise the state on environmental justice issues. 

“The way that this office was structured is really beneficial to addressing the type of injustices that people are dealing with in their communities,” said Regina Strong, the environmental justice public advocate in the state. “Michigan has been very focused in the last few years on advancing how we address [environmental justice].”

One of the biggest projects undertaken by Strong’s office has been a cleanup of lead water pipes in Benton Harbor, Michigan. This fall, it announced that over 90 percent of lead service lines had been successfully replaced. 

Minnesota, too, scored highly in the report due to its comprehensive Environmental Justice Framework and its actions in banning PFAS, a toxic chemical linked to certain cancers and reproductive issues, from food packaging. The ban takes effect in 2024, and requires food processing and packaging companies that service the state to replace PFAS in their products with alternatives. It also prohibits businesses in the state from “knowingly” selling or distributing food packaging made with PFAS.

However, there’s still work to be done within the state, according to Evan Mulholland of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. In particular, he said, the state could do a better job of considering the cumulative impacts of multiple sources of pollution on vulnerable communities. For years, MCEA has been supporting an effort to pass a bill in the state that would require facilities applying for permits in disadvantaged or overburdened areas to quantify the cumulative environmental impacts their developments would have in areas already burdened with other sources of pollution. 

“There are a lot of reforms that are needed,” said Mulholland. “Once you have your eyes open to the environmental injustice, you see it everywhere.”

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Illinois has also created an Environmental Justice Coordinator position responsible for increasing outreach to vulnerable communities in the state, especially regarding new construction projects or developments that might have environmental impacts. Now, when a company applies for a permit to construct a new facility in a disadvantaged community, those residents are notified of the application. 

Chris Pressnall, the current environmental justice coordinator, said the Illinois EPA plans to grow its environmental justice work by hiring two new additional staff. Illinois has also created public online visualization tools to help community members and researchers understand environmental justice geographically. Michigan, too, plans to release an online tool in the coming months.

Building capacity for environmental justice work and increasing communication between organizations is another important step, said Campbell. “There are lots of other groups that have been concerned about social equity issues, but haven’t always thought of themselves as environmentally focused,” he said, adding that bringing such groups into the conversation is crucial to advancing justice.

But Roxxanne O’Brien, a community organizer in Minneapolis, questions how far state governments can really go in addressing environmental justice. To O’Brien, it’s not governments who will ultimately protect residents—it’s the residents themselves. For 10 years, the community of North Minneapolis, where O’Brien lives, fought hard against the Northern Metals Recycling plant due to concerns about toxic air pollution.

The plant was finally shut down in 2019. O’Brien said that victory was mostly won due to the work of residents, not the government, and that her community should not have had to fight for a decade to protect the health of their families.

“If I were to rank the residents and the citizens for how they fight back,” she said, “I would give us an ‘A.’”

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