The house subcommittee on the environment convened a field hearing in the gymnasium of the Kemeny Recreation Center on Monday afternoon titled “Environmental Injustice: Exploring Inequities in Air and Water Quality in Michigan.” Committee chairman, Rep. Harley Rouda (D-48CA) and vice chair, Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-13 MI) heard from environmental advocates about the disparate impacts of pollution on low-income communities and communities of color, specifically the cities of Flint and Detroit.
The proceedings come on the heels of another emissions incident at the Marathon refinery in southwest Detroit last week. The release of oil vapors closed the nearby freeway exits and triggered and evacuation of the facility. Residents in the area were trapped inside their homes to escape the noxious fumes.
The incident is part of a longstanding problem in the majority black burrough of Boynton according to Michigan United environmental justice organizer, Emma Lockridge. “Environmental racism began the day our parents signed the deed in the 1950’s and were restricted from living in certain neighborhoods and were forced to live near polluting industries,” said Lockridge in testimony to the subcommittee. “Marathon is our closest polluter but there are dozens more surrounding my community doing harm. We need national legislation that would force the measurement of cumulative impacts to our health.”
The hearing also focused on water security and affordability. Flint Rising Director, Nayyirah Shariff pointed out that her city was denied a federal disaster declaration because of the Stafford Act which limits the assistance to “natural catastrophes” such as tornadoes or hurricanes. The Flint water crisis “…was caused by environmental racism, white supremacy, patriarchal decision-making, and belief that the needs of large corporations like General Motors are more important than the needs of poor Black and Brown people who can’t afford to pay $200-300 a month for poison water,” said Shariff. “The Stafford Act needs to be amended to include the poisoning of communities through air and water.”
Rep. Tlaib urged residents who came out to the public hearing to get active and stay engaged. “Most of the transformative changes… didn’t happen because something happened in the halls of congress,” said Tlaib. “Movement starts with you who demand it of us to make sure you have access to community impact-based air permits, to clean water, to water affordability.”