Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin lag behind on environmental justice issues

On the northwest side of Milwaukee, Wis., where more than half the population is black or African-American, an aging sewer system often malfunctions and miles of asphalt and concrete make managing stormwater a challenge. Heavy rain sometimes causes flooding in the neighborhood, and community members are calling for action to help manage the water.

Antonio Butts, director of the Milwaukee citizen action group Walnut Way, said addressing issues in such communities has great potential to improve environmental justice. “This is the state’s biggest opportunity to get the biggest return on investment because the impacts can and will change standards of living, quality of life and economic mobility,” he said.

Wisconsin is one of the states included in the a a recent report by the Northeast and Midwest Institute, which ranked Midwestern states in terms of their progress on environmental justice issues. Among Midwestern states, Michigan ranked first, Minnesota second and Illinois third, with Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana following in that order.

The report ranked states based on the existence of 11 factors, such as having a state agency dedicated to environmental justice, environmental resolutions passed by state legislatures, and providing publicly available online tools to help communities understand environmental justice issues. The Northeast and Midwest Institute, located in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization established in the 1970s to promote economic development, environmental quality, and regional equity in 18 northeastern states and states. of the Midwest.

While the Midwest has seen progress, some community organizers say state governments have limited power to make real changes, according to the institute.

The report assessed environmental justice work in the region based on criteria related to government action. States with staff, committees, and programs in state government specifically focused on environmental justice issues rank higher, as do states that have passed bills that promote environmental justice. The report, which also analyzes progress on environmental justice in the Northeast, found that “coastal states with high population densities and a large share of [Democratic] voters” tended to score better on measures of environmental justice.

“The Republican Party is much more business-oriented, and there are a lot of them [environmental justice] the policy could certainly hurt many businesses,” said Nicholas Griffin, author of the report.

Many Midwestern states face environmental justice issues due to industrial pollution, as the Mississippi River and Great Lakes waterways have historically offered prime real estate for steel mills and other manufacturing industries. These factories brought industrial pollution that persists in some communities to this day, requiring action by local and state governments. Often, communities near industrial areas are low-income minority and majority, meaning that pollution issues in such areas are also issues of racial and economic justice.

Balance between industry and health and environmental issues

Along Indiana along the northwestern shores of Lake Michigan, discharges from steel mills, factories and other manufacturing facilities into tributary rivers threaten the health of nearby residents, said Paula Brooks, environmental justice program manager for the Hooser Environmental Council, an Indianapolis-based environmental advocacy group.

State agencies in Indiana, Brooks said, may want to adopt more policies to improve environmental justice. However, because the state legislature is controlled by a Republican supermajority, progress on such issues can be blocked. “You always have a business or an industry that really advocates for deregulation,” she said. “But there are health implications that need to be taken into account.”

Meanwhile, Iowa is struggling to keep water quality problems under control because of the state’s agricultural industry, said Brian Campbell of the Iowa Environmental Council. Communities with large immigrant populations, such as Perry and Storm Lake, are particularly struggling with the costs of upgrading water infrastructure, he said.

“The state government can do a lot more,” Campbell said. “A number of states across the country have exciting environmental justice policies and how government agencies have begun to think about environmental justice in their processes and ensure that various stakeholders are well represented in decision-making. I think there’s a long way to go to build that in Iowa.”

EJ Community Engagement

According to the report, Midwestern states that have made the most progress on environmental justice have done so with special offices within state agencies responsible for overseeing such issues. For example, the Michigan Office of the Public Advocate for Environmental Justice was created by Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s office in 2019 and helped create the state’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which brings together grassroots organizers, tribal representatives, community members and industry representatives to advise the state on issues of environmental justice.

“The way this office has been structured is really about addressing the injustices that people face in their communities,” said Regina Strong, the state’s public advocate for environmental justice. “In the last few years, Michigan has been very focused on promoting how we apply [environmental justice].”

One of the largest projects undertaken by Strong’s office was the cleanup of lead water pipes in Benton Harbor, Michigan. It was announced this fall that it was over 90 percent leading service lines have been successfully replaced.

Minnesota also received high marks in the report for its comprehensiveness A framework for environmental justice and his actions to ban PFAS, a toxic chemical linked to some cancers and reproductive problems, from food packaging. The ban takes effect in 2024 and requires food processing and packaging companies serving the state to replace PFAS in their products with alternatives. It also prohibits businesses in the state from “knowingly” selling or distributing food packaging made with PFAS.

However, the state still has work to do, according to Evan Mulholland of the Minnesota Environmental Defense Center. In particular, he said, the state could better take into account the cumulative impact of various sources of pollution on vulnerable populations. For years, MCEA has supported efforts to pass a state bill that would require facilities seeking permits in blighted or congested areas to quantify the cumulative environmental impact their development would have in areas already burdened by other sources of pollution.

“A lot of reform is needed,” Mulholland said. “Once you open your eyes to environmental injustice, you will see it everywhere.”

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Illinois has also created an Environmental Justice Coordinator position responsible for increasing outreach to vulnerable populations in the state, particularly regarding new construction projects or events that may have an impact on the environment. Now, when a company applies for a permit to build a new facility in a disadvantaged community, those residents receive notice of the application.

Chris Presnall, the current environmental justice coordinator, said the Illinois EPA plans to increase its environmental justice efforts by hiring two new staff members. Illinois also created public online visualization tools to help community members and researchers understand environmental justice geographically. Michigan also plans to release an online tool in the coming months.

Building capacity for environmental justice work and increasing communication among organizations is another important step, Campbell said. “There are a lot of other groups that have been concerned about social justice issues but haven’t always thought of themselves as environmental,” he said, adding that bringing such groups into the conversation is critical to advancing justice.

But Roxanne O’Brien, a community organizer in Minneapolis, questions how far state governments can really go in addressing environmental justice issues. In O’Brien’s view, in the end, it is not the government that will protect the residents, but the residents themselves. For 10 years, the North Minneapolis community where O’Brien lives has fought hard against the Northern Metals Recycling plant over concerns about toxic air pollution.

The plant was finally shut down in 2019. O’Brien said the victory was largely due to the work of residents, not the government, and that her community did not have to fight for a decade to protect the health of their families.

“If I were to rate residents and citizens on how they fight back,” she said, “I’d give us an ‘A.'” Indiana, Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin lag behind on environmental justice issues

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