By CHRISTINE HOMAN
Capital News Service
LANSING – Environmental Justice may soon get a new look as the state gets closer to finishing guidelines to ensure minority and low-income communities aren’t discriminated against over new laws regulations.
The plan by the Department of Natural Resources (DNRE) also attempts to provide a way in which residents of those communities can voice their opinions about environmental laws.
“The biggest benefits of the plan are broadening recognition that there are certain communities in the state that are bearing a larger cost of the environmental problems we have than others and that we have a healthy dialogue about what to do about that,” said Frank Ruswick, deputy director of stewardship for the DNRE.
In a typical environment justice situation, a low income or minority community feels that a proposed facility in their area poses a significant health or environmental risk.
The plan is open to public comment until April 9. Then the DNRE and other groups involved in creating it will review the comments and make appropriate changes.
The plan addresses how the state can increase public involvement, integrate efforts among departments and create a petition process for affected communities to voice their concerns.
The state has been sued and named in administrative complaints with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) claiming the DNRE used discriminatory practices when granting permits.
Two notable permit challenges were against a Flint Select Steel Corp. facility and a hazardous waste injection well in Romulus.
The suit concerning Select Steel was dismissed in 1998 because the EPA found no significant health risks from the facility.
The suit about the Romulus site was dismissed in 2002 because the percentage of minority residents in the communities was lower than the state average, according to the EPA.
Although both cases were dismissed, the EPA said that Michigan had no environmental justice plan and encouraged the state to create one.
The DNRE has attempted to create environmental justice plans since then, but with little success. The current plan is the result of an executive directive by Gov. Jennifer Granholm in 2007.
Representatives from several state agencies, environmental advocacy groups and economic development and business organizations worked on the plan.
Randall Gross, director of environmental and regulatory policy for the Michigan Manufacturers Association, expressed concern about its effect on business.
“Environmental justice policies tend to lead to inconsistent regulatory practices, and as a business community the thing we desire most is a predictable regulatory environment,” Gross said.
He said existing federal civil right laws are enough to protect minority and low income communities from discrimination when permits are issued.
He also stressed that every environmental justice suit in Michigan so far had been decided in favor of the state.
Julia Chambers, co-president of A Few Friends for the Environment of the World, an environmental group based in Mason County, said the plan is good because it will help protect health and the environment.
Chambers said people in low-income and minority communities don’t always have the resources to advocate for themselves and environmental justice requirements help them do that.
But she also sees a larger issue.
“Overall, I think we should be more careful, whether it’s in a richer area or a poverty stricken area,” Chambers said.
© 2010, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Not to be reproduced without permission.