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Flint groups call EGLE, EPA agreement on civil rights complaint "a slap in the face"

Recent findings about the pollution of waterways near oil refineries underscore health and environmental dangers.
Ryan Kellman
Recent findings about the pollution of waterways near oil refineries underscore health and environmental dangers.

Flint community and environmental leaders are venting their frustration at the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, after they claim EGLE “torpedoed” months of talks and signed a “watered-down” agreement with the EPA.

EGLE and EPA announced last week that they had reached an “informal resolution” of a civil rights complaint that Flint groups filed in 2021. They argued that EGLE violated the Civil Rights Act when it permitted an asphalt plant in Genesee Township, a predominantly Black, low-income community that borders Flint.

The groups said they were initially involved in negotiations, but that “at the last minute,” EGLE and EPA agreed to the “watered-down” resolution. Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising, called that “a breach of trust” and a “slap in the face.”

“It makes me wonder if EGLE was participating in these negotiations in good faith, or basically showing up to be performative. And it's about the optics,” Shariff said.

Ted Zahrfeld chairs the board of the Saint Francis Prayer Center, which sits in the asphalt plant’s shadow. He said that community already suffers a heavy burden, including heightened rates of asthma, from industrial pollution.

“We are part of a worrisome trend,” Zahrfeld said. “States or communities suffering from Title VI [of the Civil Rights Act] violations. And EPA is letting us down.”

In a statement, EGLE acknowledged that the agreement “does not address all the issues raised by the local residents during our discussions,” but nonetheless called it a step forward. It says EGLE will “remain committed to continuing to work with the community to address ongoing concerns,” and “address challenges presented in overburdened communities.”

EGLE also noted that the resolution is not an admission of non-compliance with the Civil Rights Act. The agency expressed confidence that it “fully complies with Title VI and the protection of civil rights. The purpose of this agreement is to memorialize our ongoing commitment to environmental justice.”

The Flint groups had been pushing the idea that EGLE needs to consider the cumulative impacts of all pollution in communities before granting permits, arguing that failing to do that could lead to “permitting decisions that may result in discriminatory effects.”

“A close look at EGLE’s current permitting program reveals a culture of customer service for polluting industries rather than service to public health and the environment,” group leaders wrote in a letter to EGLE officials on August 4th. “EGLE itself reported that in FY2020 it approved 97% of the 25,039 permit applications it received, denying only .4%, while the remainder of applications were withdrawn.

“These numbers reflect EGLE’s willingness to sacrifice Black and brown communities for the interests of industry. Until EGLE makes permitting decisions that fully reflect the environmental and public health impacts, including the cumulative impacts facing the surrounding area, it will not be living up to its mission.”

Nicholas Leonard, an attorney with the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center who was involved in filing the complaint, said they were “really hoping that this resolution agreement could serve as a really solid model in Michigan [and] across the country for how we were going to better address environmental justice concerns through permitting.”

“We didn't get the specifics that we wanted,” Leonard added. “We wanted a really clear outline that the state is really going to lean on, really push environmental justice.”

Sarah Cwiek joined Michigan Public in October 2009. As our Detroit reporter, she is helping us expand our coverage of the economy, politics, and culture in and around the city of Detroit.