The Sierra Club’s manifesto to the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (DEQ) to restrict permits to new or modified facilities that emit pollutants could have mega-consequences for Detroit. It may be well intentioned. In practice, however, the push for what it calls “environmental justice” ensures that distressed cities will be permanently devoid of new manufacturing opportunities.
The Sierra Club’s State-of-the-Environment report is aimed at the Detroit Future City strategy that takes a futuristic view of land use. The document claims city planners fail to take into consideration that metro Detroit’s poor and minority neighborhoods are already deluged with excessive pollution and contaminated industrial, commercial and hazardous waste sites.
Identified as chronic polluters are solid waste incinerators, steel companies, oil refineries, vehicle pollution from nearby I-75 and coal fired power plants – mostly in Southwest Detroit and adjacent downriver suburbs. Black and brown residents living in proximity to this contamination, according to the environmental group, are subjected to inordinately high levels of diseases and birth defects.
This attempt to link pollution with alleged civil rights violations seems like the organization is trying to justify its existence while placing Detroit’s in peril. The charges are easy to make. But much of the energy and passion infusing environmental justice is neither justified nor scientific.
Claims of “environmental injustice” and environmental racism are little more than loosely defined catch phrases used by environmental activists to draw attention to the purportedly disproportionate negative effects of pollution in poor and minority communities. These terms are commonly associated with widely held accusations that federal, state and local governments may have even conspired to permit greater pollution in impoverished black and brown communities than in affluent ones.
It may be accurate, for example, to say that Detroit has more commercial hazardous waste sites in black and brown neighborhoods than in most suburban cities. However, there is no evidence that state and federal officials deliberately sited hazardous projects near places where minorities cluster, or that they intentionally overlook regulatory violations in making siting decisions. Older industrial sites have been around for decades.
Shifts in population help explain why minority populations are often found near waste-producing facilities. As the middle class moved out of cities – which were often far more polluted in the bad old days of American industry – the poor of all hues moved into vacated areas close to old plants and waste sites where housing is more affordable.
We also know that black and minority populations typically have worse health concerns than the general public. But many of these disparities may easily be attributable to behavior and lifestyle than environmental pollution. The same health disparities also exist among minorities who live in affluent suburbs around Detroit.
The Sierra Club’s minority-race-based analyses of sites and limiting new permits threatens to forever kill both expansion and new investment in depressed urban industrial areas. Not only would it have a chilling effect on urban redevelopment initiatives on the drawing board, it would impose higher costs on businesses looking to locate in areas where the need for investment and development is greatest.
Small businesses looking to expand don’t have the luxury of economies of scale in complying with environmental and other regulations. They will be particularly hard hit. The result will be the further depression of land values and the continued out-migration of what little industry, jobs and tax base is left. The economic damage inflicted upon the city would surpass any conceivable environmental benefit.
The DEQ should continue to consider the potential for disparate impacts on low-income and people-of- color communities. But permits should be issued on a case-by-case basis. Some contamination can be abated or reconciled and some waste sites can be reclaimed.
Meanwhile, business and industry should unite to prevent the Sierra Club from sounding an urban regulatory death knell that takes Detroit out of the running for a much needed revival.