Tackling cumulative exposures, rather than one pollutant at a time, is key to correcting environmental injustice, experts say. But progress remains too slow in the most affected neighborhoods.
DETROIT—Theresa Landrum still has an emergency kit the Wayne County Department of Homeland Security gave her years ago when she asked the agency to help her community, which is surrounded by heavy industry, create an evacuation plan in the event of a chemical emergency.
"The more exposure the greater the risk"<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA1Mjk0My9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5MzQ3MzM0Nn0.AbHb-ylMeq5upoDtLcGdefsT0QyRP1iOf56ct-PsODE/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C25%2C0%2C50&height=800" id="ebc5b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e9a46a937aa5399983410ba5ea29677a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Theresa Landrum (Credit: Rochelle Riley)<p>"One of the original sins of our air quality regulation is that it regulates pollutant by pollutant and facility by facility, and it rarely goes outside of those parameters," Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, told EHN. "That doesn't adequately address these unique issues of having a cluster of major sources of pollution in a highly concentrated area."</p><p>Neither the federal Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), nor Michigan's Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) require cumulative assessment of exposures, even though experts agree that's exactly what's needed.</p><p>"Any one chemical can do multiple things and any two chemicals or any thousands of chemicals can interact in ways that make it very difficult to understand how you go from exposure to specific disease," David Carpenter, director of the Institute for Health and the Environment at the University of Albany, told EHN.</p><p>However, Carpenter's health studies of multiple exposures at hazardous waste sites have found significant increases in hospitalization rates for diseases including <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16129026" target="_blank">strokes</a>, <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/22002323" target="_blank">leukemia</a>, <a href="https://nyaspubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1196/annals.1454.000" target="_blank">asthma and other respiratory diseases</a>.</p><p>"People in these communities that have multiple exposures are going to have greater risk of multiple diseases, and the more exposure the greater the risk," he said. </p>
Chemical by chemical vs. cumulative<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA1MjgxOC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTU5NzkyODIzM30.WZYWzypvQqZ7MwBUzAKdiVjgK6dv7KYgRyi0vvZkByI/img.jpg?width=980" id="e55b5" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="0b3925b3e559bcaef7e1922148752027" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Screening tools as solutions?<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA1MjgyNi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDIyNTY1N30.pRIbdPPmMGVeE8xQ6It8Z2Oio0w9o7Om9-Rle9GK2wk/img.jpg?width=980" id="e3e98" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="3c6051c37336ab3f5ac95b6f4a6ce472" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
(Credit: Adam Reinhardt)<p>California isn't alone. Minnesota also has an environmental justice screening tool, as does the EPA. But California's is considered the gold standard by Bullard and others because it's geared toward pollution reduction and financed with money from the Cap-and-Trade Program.</p><p>California's <a href="https://ccap.org/californias-ab-617-a-new-frontier-in-air-quality-managementif-funded/" target="_blank">AB 617</a> law, for example, requires reductions in air pollution in disadvantaged communities and sets up a process whereby community organizations work with the state's air districts to create plans for monitoring and reducing air pollution that go beyond existing programs. Those plans are due next year. </p><p>Another law, the <a href="https://leginfo.legislature.ca.gov/faces/billNavClient.xhtml?bill_id=201520160AB2722" target="_blank">Transformative Climate Communities (TCC) Act</a>, combines greenhouse gas reductions with public health improvements and economic development in disadvantaged communities. "No one experiences pollution or poverty in one single way. It all intersects," Tiffany Eng, program manager at California Environmental Justice Alliance, told EHN, explaining the law's significance.</p>
Map created by 48217 activists marking the industrial facilities surrounding their community. 48217 is outlined in red. (Credit: Meg Wilcox)<p>Cities scoring high on CalEnviroScreen are eligible for TCC funds to create community development plans to reduce pollution and boost economic opportunity. Fresno, for example, <a href="https://nextcity.org/features/view/how-this-community-fought-for-70-million-in-cleanup-funds-and-won" target="_blank">received $70 million</a> for a plan focused on issues such as workforce training; affordable, energy efficient housing; food deserts and access to public transportation.</p><p>Then there's AB 673 law, which requires the state to look at cumulative impact and factor in the CalEnviroScreen score when permitting hazardous waste facilities. "It's a major, fundamental change in the permitting process," Bonnie A. Holmes-Gen, a senior environmental scientist at California's Department of Toxic Substances, told EHN.</p><p>Recent victories in California include a groundbreaking <a href="https://www.bakersfield.com/news/arvin-council-passes-oil-and-gas-restrictions-will-others-follow/article_1bd2bc7a-8acf-11e8-8a7c-df15d032d87d.html" target="_blank">local ordinance</a> passed in the City of Arvin requiring a 300 foot buffer between oil and gas drilling operations and sensitive places like homes, schools and senior centers. Activists also convinced the Fresno City Council to require a meat-rendering plant that emitted a stench and spilled foul liquids and animal wastes from trucks <a href="https://www.fresnobee.com/news/local/article181189206.html" target="_blank">to relocate</a> to an area that would not harm the public's health.</p><p>"The [CalEnviroScreen] tool has been really instrumental in these local groups being able to advocate for their needs on the ground," Eng said.</p>
Not waiting for regulations<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8xOTA1Mjk0Ni9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0MTU5MTEyMn0.4yLN_OuNwbflaNF3oBCZCFpgAeqIbemfwgGfzZartss/img.jpg?width=1200&coordinates=0%2C45%2C0%2C113&height=800" id="59f08" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="bc65ccf62e4ba3a6c991a9e2aab24e4b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
Delores Leonard holding up the analysis the community did with the TRI data and community monitoring station. (Credit: Adam Reinhardt)<p>Earlier this year, Michigan Governor Rick Snyder's environmental justice task force <a href="https://www.michigan.gov/documents/snyder/Environmental_Justice_Work_Group_Report_616102_7.pdf" target="_blank">issued 33 recommendations</a>, including the development of a state environmental justice screen, cumulative exposure assessment and community air monitoring. Since then it's acted on two of those recommendations, establishing a state ombudsman and an environmental justice interagency working group. The recently sworn-in Governor Gretchen Whitmer is expected to keep the ball moving forward.</p><p>Developing an environmental justice screen shouldn't be all that hard for Michigan or other states, Paul Mohai, professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, told EHN. "California put in so much time and effort; they subsidized the work for us," he said. Of course, there are many design questions to consider, and data quality, particularly at the community level, is an issue any state must grapple with. </p><p>But the thorniest challenges are political. </p><p>Ultimately states need to decide: What levels of pollution trigger action? What regulatory or rule changes are needed to ensure action? And how will pollution reduction efforts be funded?</p><p>Residents of 48217 aren't holding their breath.</p>
Rhonda Anderson of the Sierra Club. (Credit: Meg Wilcox)<p>Already they fought long and hard to get the community air monitoring station set up at the New Mount Hermon Baptist Church. Now they're leading efforts to develop their own emergency evacuation plan that they'll submit to the state for funding, according to Landrum. And they're also evaluating their cumulative exposure, using data from the EPA's TRI database.</p><p>Working with Mohai, community activist Delores Leonard and Rhonda Anderson of the Sierra Club took TRI data from the facilities in their neighborhood and compiled it by chemical to get the sum of their exposure. While the group is not ready to release the data, Landrum said, "We feel that the data does show we've been overexposed, and it's a serious health risk for vulnerable populations who've been living here for 30, 40, 60, 70 years."</p><p>Mohai agrees. "In my opinion, if you look at a community and there's a lot of pollution there, and you do a health survey and see respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cancer, and you have information that identifies things in the environment that cause those conditions, prudence should be: what can we do to minimize those exposures, not that you have to prove cause and effect."</p><p>Environmental justice screening tools take that progressive approach. That's why Mohai, Bullard and others view them as a positive advancement, a starting point for communities and a means to begin transforming the regulatory process.</p><p>"If we took a commonsense approach, used the precautionary principle, we would flip the dominant environmental protection paradigm on its head," Bullard said.</p>