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Michigan's largest cities most at-risk for environmental hazards, according to study

Michigan counties in different shades of blue
U.S. census bureau
U.S. Census Bureau

Census tracts in Detroit, Kalamazoo, Lansing, Flint, Saginaw and Grand Rapids scored high on an evaluation of environmental injustices, according to a University of Michigan study released Thursday.

Those areas also had high concentrations of low-income and minority residents.

The U-M team, made up of graduate students Laura Grier, Delie Mayor and Brett Zeuner, used a screening method based on those already used in other states like the CalEnviroScreen in California and What’s in My Neighborhoodused in Minnesota. Co-author Laura Grier defined environmental injustice as the disproportionate impact of pollution on particular communities.

The Environmental Justice Coalition partnered with the University of Michigan on the study. Michelle Martinez, coordinator of the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition, said the state needs to adopt the environmental screening tools that so many other states already have.

“In the long term we need policy that's going to address legacy pollution that includes those folks that have been historically burdened by environmental contamination.”

She says environmental screening was first recommended to former Gov. Rick Snyder’s administration during the Flint water crisis. 

The team scored census tracts based on 11 environmental indicators - including air toxics cancer risk, air toxics respiratory hazard index, diesel particulate matter level in air, ozone level in air and lead paint indicator - and six demographic indicators such as percent minority residents, percent living below two times the federal poverty level and percent employed. They gathered information from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the Department of Housing and Urban Development and the Census Bureau, according to a report. They also interviewed 30 environmental justice leaders across the state to complete their data.

Of the 10 census tracts with the highest scores, five were in Kent County, and include parts of Grand Rapids, three were in Wayne county including parts of Detroit, and two were in Kalamazoo County including parts of the city of Kalamazoo.

Brett Zeuner, one of the graduate student researchers, said the data is leaning more towards urban areas because there was more data available about air quality, rather than water quality or overall health outcomes.

“We know and do recognize that tribal communities suffer from hazardous exposure from mining waste,” Zeuner said. “So that's an example of an indicator that we couldn’t use but would’ve like to use.”

Co-author Laura Grier said the results show a need for stronger state-level policy to protect vulnerable communities.  


“Taking our future into our own hands means advocating for equal protection under the law.”


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