Could Flint happen again? UofM researchers mapped possible cities

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Could Flint happen again?

It’s possible. Researchers from the University of Michigan have created a heat map that highlights cities in Michigan where a disproportionate number of people of color live near highly-polluted areas. The 10-month study found that inequality was starkest in cities like Detroit, Grand Rapids and Lansing.

That map, published on Tuesday was part of a statewide list of recommendations to understand some of environmental challenges people of color face in Michigan.

“This is the first time a statewide assessment has been done that gives us information in terms of identifying areas that are high-burdened and have large social vulnerability,” said Paul Mohai, a sustainability professor at the University of Michigan.

But what exactly are those challenges? Mohai said the symptoms that contributed to the public health crisis in Flint are those faced in many environmental injustice situations. Some symptoms include: Ozone air levels, traffic proximity and volume, cancer and respiratory risk, air toxicity and proximity to Superfund sites. 

"Environmental justice is the right of everyone to a clean, healthy, and safe environment in which to live, work, pray, and play," Mohai said. "Environmental injustice is when those rights are violated.“

A concept that mixes social inequality with environmental degradation is not an easy one to calculate. However, after the Flint Water Crisis broke officials under former Gov. Rick Snyder sought to do just that. They submitted a list of 33 recommendations - one being a  goal of understanding which people were most vulnerable to problems similar to those faced in Flint. 

In the most polluted places in the state, on average 86 percent of the population living nearby are people of color. Compare that figure with Michigan’s total population, of which only 29.2 percent are people of color.

“This really fits the pattern of what decades of research has now been providing evidence for,” Mohai said. “The value in a tool like this is telling us where to point the search light and where to invest time and effort to make improvements.”

Designated hot spots showing the strongest disproportion of race and environmental issues include Detroit, Flint, Lansing, Kalamazoo and Grand Rapids. These results didn’t surprise researchers - instead validating what evidence has shown for years.

However, those involved in the study said seeing less-surprising cities like Grand Rapids and Lansing show up on their map was proof the issue was pervasive across the state.

“Often in (the capitol), it’s a ‘Detroit problem,’” said Michelle Martinez, the statewide coordinator for the Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition. “But we know seeing contamination and heavy industry is impacting parts of the state we don’t talk about.”

How the state utilizes this information will be up to them. Martinez has been encouraged by initial moves made by the Whitmer Administration in their recruitment of Regina Strong to the new role of Environmental Justice Public Advocate at the revamped Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE). 

The next moves she said need to be policy-based. From enforcing current pollution laws like the Clean Water and Air Act to cementing a long-term vision that transitions the state’s industry.

Regardless of how Michigan tackles their environmental injustice problem, it’s likely they’ll model their direction based on plans implemented in California and Minnesota - two states that have already generated their own baseline study for mapping hot spots.

“With that info, it is now possible to take a closer look at the state to see what investment could improve situations,” said Mohai.

That might mean targeting funds toward Superfund sites in these cities or studying the health data of those areas for rates of asthma. Several options are available, but what remains true for Mohai is doing nothing with the data could prove detrimental for the state’s poorest residents.

“I see future Flints if the state doesn’t do anything,” he said. “I was persuaded to get involved because I was led to believe the state was serious about developing policy that was meaningful.”