By SUE SUCHYTA
Sunday Times Newspapers
In the shadow of the Marathon refinery, in Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code, U.S. Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-13th District) held a hearing Sept. 16 on air and water quality.
In a packed gym at the Kemeny Recreation Center, 2260 Fort St., Detroit, Tlaib, with U.S. Rep. Harley Rouda (D-Calif.) held a congressional field hearing with experts and local activists.
Tlaib is vice chairwoman of the House Oversight and Reform Subcommittee on the Environment.
Panelists and speakers included Dolores Leonard, environmental and community activist; Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, a safe water coalition; Paul Mohai, professor, University of Michigan School for Environment and Sustainability; Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center; and Emma Lockridge, community activist and local resident.
Tlaib said although they have congressional hearings in Washington, D.C., with experts, it is just as important to hear from local advocates and activists to keep aware of what is occurring in her home district.
“We are here today in Michigan’s most polluted ZIP code, a resilient ZIP code, to hear from a family of environmental warriors who have fought for our public health in the streets, in the legislature and in the courts,” Tlaib said. “We have a right to breathe clean air, and water is a human right. We take on these big fights because we don’t have any other alternatives.
“When people take to the streets to protest for environmental justice, they’re standing up for their lives, the right to live.”
Dolores Leonard said she has learned that the political climate, elected officials, and the economic environment of industries, companies and stockholders dictate the guidelines written for the environmental protection of residents. She said lobbyists often influence the laws enacted by the Environmental Protection Agency.
She said it is critical that the cumulative emission of area industries be considered, not just each separate industry’s emissions of the same chemicals.
“What is impacting my community is when all of the aggregate comes together, and that is what impacts the health and the psychological impact on my community,” Dolores Leonard said.
Shariff, a Flint water advocate, said the Flint water crisis is an example of what happens when the needs of profits and industry are deemed more important than the needs of the people.
“Bottled water sends a message that water should be commoditized,” she said. “How can there be a price tag to something essential to human life?”
Shariff said many of the polluting industries are concentrated in communities of color.
“The Flint water crisis didn’t occur because of a tornado, hurricane or earthquake,” she said. “It was caused by environmental racism and patriarchal decision-making and capitalism, and the belief that the needs of a large corporation are more important than the needs of poor black and brown people.”
Mohai said in 1987, the United Church of Christ report on toxic waste and racism in the United States was the first study to examine the distribution of hazardous waste sites around the nation.
“They found that the concentration of people of color in ZIP codes containing hazardous waste facilities was double that in ZIP codes without,” Mohai said. “They also found that the concentration of people of color in the ZIP codes was the best predictor of where such facilities were located, even when controlling for incomes and property values.”
He said other studies since have confirmed the racial and economic disparities in the distribution of environmental hazards, with race most often the best predictor.
“Until the Flint water crisis became an international story, it was rare to hear of environmental disparities and injustices acknowledged or to hear the terms ‘environmental racism’ and ‘environmental justice’ in public discourse,’” he said. “The Flint water crisis began to change this, and in my opinion is the most egregious example of environmental injustice in my over 30 years of studying this issue.”
Nick Leonard said states have failed to take action for people of color. He said gas-fired power plants are being built while waste facilities are being expanded.
“Because the concerns of these communities of color are not reflected in the law, they are not effectively addressed,” he said. “Our environmental agencies decide whether to allow projects to move forward, ignoring the concerns of people of color. Put another way, the law ignores people of color, and as a result, the agencies administering to them do as well.”
Lockridge, who has experienced first-hand the pollution from the steel plants and refineries in the area, spoke of wearing a breathing mask, and seeing people die of kidney failure caused by the pollutants. She has had a kidney transplant, while others, who weren’t so fortunate, died. She said neighbors have died from non-Hodgkins lymphoma and other cancers.
“I contacted the EPA, I contacted the state, and they did nothing,” Lockridge said. “Why? Because we are black. What does this all mean for us, to be in this toxic environment?
“It means for me, kidney failure. I had to have a kidney transplant. Thank God I had a donor.”
She said her next-door neighbor is on dialysis, her neighbor across the street died while on dialysis, and her handyman, who cuts her grass, and lives a block away, is on dialysis, and her sister died of kidney failure.
“Environmental racism has had a huge impact on our lives,” Lockridge said. “On top of our health, we lost our wealth. For me, time is up. I want out of here, because everything around me is just too toxic.”
Tlaib mentioned her concern with the EPA office in Grosse Ile Township being shut down, and its employees relocated to Ann Arbor. She said it is important to have the inspectors closer.
Rouda said legislators need to “fight like hell” to get to a clean energy environment.
“It is easier to predict the economic impact,” he said. “It is easy to predict the human impact. You literally need to count the number of people who have lost their homes, who have died. What is harder is when you are dealing with illnesses. We can have an apocalyptic outcome or a nirvana outcome.”
Tlaib said she is going to continue to fight for policies that are more humane and just for all people.
“Please know that this is just the beginning,” Tlaib said. “I know that hearing from all of you refuels me to be even more committed to elevating your voices and fighting against environmental racism. We at the federal level in Congress need to do more.
“This reconfirms for us to really push forward. The one thing I have learned is there seems to be this lack of urgency. This makes us feel like we have to move quicker. This is urgent. We have to move. How many times do we have to study the fact that we are dying?”
For updates, go to tlaib.house.gov. To bring an issue to Tlaib’s attention, call 313-463-6220 or email [email protected]
(Sue Suchyta can be reached at [email protected])