EPA conference on environmental justice brings attention to Detroit
Published: August 31, 2011
It just so happened that soon after fire broke out and triggered an evacuation at the Marathon Petroleum Co. refinery in southwest Detroit last week, a handful of national environmental justice advocates and Environmental Protection Agency administrators were nearby.
They were in town for an environmental justice conference, but had ducked out of a few sessions to visit the movement's front line in Detroit. What they saw, heard and smelled provided a poignant reminder of the work remaining to be done.
Caused by a "power blip," according to Marathon spokeswoman Chris Fox, the fire forced excess gases to be burned off. That, in turn, caused the thicker-than-normal black smoke and higher-than-normal flames to shoot from the smokestack.
"As a safety valve, you flare off that excess gas," Fox says. "That's what was going on. That's actually a good thing. It's burned. It's not a gas being released. It's being combusted."
Steven Fischbach, community lawyer with Rhode Island Legal Services, was in the area with his camera when it happened. He photographed the smoke and fire. He realized later that, although Marathon's employees and contractors were evacuated, the neighborhood wasn't even notified. And the plumes of smoke were just a few hundred yards from homes.
Fischbach has worked on and followed environmental justice and other social justice issues around the country for decades. But rarely, he says, do these issues get thrust so front and center as in the neighborhood surrounding the refinery and adjacent to other heavy industry in the area.
The fire just made it that much more apparent.
"Southwest Detroit is sort of like a microcosm of the type of apartheid that exists in this country," Fischbach says. "It speaks volumes as to why the EPA needs to straighten out its act with enforcement."
Fischbach was one of about 500 people who attended the conference, organized by the EPA to address environmental justice issues from around the country. Commonly defined as working at the intersection of environmental advocacy and civil rights, environmental justice advocates work to ensure that minority and low-income communities aren't disproportionately suffering the effects of industry, including pollution, lowered property values, increased truck traffic and water contamination, for example. (To read more about the issue, see our Aug. 17 cover story "Justice for all.")
"It's not just environmental justice issues. It's human rights issues," says Sandra Turner Handy, community outreach director in the Michigan Environmental Council's Detroit office. "It's a human rights issue to live, enjoy life, and die gracefully, not from the impact of pollution from companies that have been allowed to come into our communities and decimate everything."
Sessions at the conference included discussions about green jobs development, how community organizations can leverage private funding, and how community organizations can participate in environmental assessments.
Local advocates who attended the conference had their own priorities, including seeking and getting recognition and understanding from the public and governmental agencies about the lingering effects of Detroit's industrial past. The legacies include outdated infrastructure such as aging sewer systems, lead in the soil and brownfield sites that have detrimental health effects on people who live nearby.
"You might think the man down the street is crazy, but there might be something in the environment causing him to function not like you function," says Rhonda Anderson, environmental justice coordinator for the Sierra Club's Detroit office. "We need to make this a legal issue so people hear what we're saying."
Lisa Goldstein, executive director of Southwest Detroit Environmental Vision, a community advocacy group, is pushing for funding from the government or industry to provide a scientific "translator" for the community to interpret applications, permits and reports showing what discharge is coming from industry.
"The permits are so complex and they're very difficult for people to process without technical expertise," Goldstein says.
How much progress?
Throughout the four-day gathering, EPA officials had the chance to tout the agency's current and unprecedented attention to environmental justice, a priority of the new director, Lisa Jackson. As President Barack Obama's appointee to lead the agency, Jackson has picked a top adviser for the issue and has instructed the head of the agency's civil rights office to clear a backlog of complaints related to civil rights violations by polluters and industry.
But that support wasn't enough for many of the community advocates, attorneys and Detroit residents at the conference. Many bitterly complained during the sessions and in conversations between them that the EPA is failing to investigate civil rights-based complaints about polluters and effect real change in their communities.
"Yes, they're doing more than they've been doing, and yes, they need to do a lot more than they are doing," Fischbach says.
Some took a more cooperative view, including Kim Wasserman, Exectutive Director at Little Village Environmental Justice Organization.
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