Flint, MI — The Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) has entered into an informal agreement with the EPA to address a civil rights complaint lodged against an air permit the department granted for an asphalt plant on Flint’s northern border.

However, local environmental justice advocates say the agreement does not go far enough to safeguard nearby residents.

“We hoped that the Title VI civil rights agreement could bring about real change and protect us from the devastating impacts of environmental pollution,” said Nayyirah Shariff of Flint Rising, one of the complainants in the matter. “However, the recent turn of events is deeply concerning.”

Shariff, along with the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint (ETM) and St. Francis Prayer Center, submitted the civil rights complaint to the EPA in November 2021.

The complaint alleged that EGLE had discriminated against area residents, who are predominantly Black, lower-income families, in approving the plant’s permit, its public participation process surrounding the permit, and in its criteria and methods of administering its air permit program overall.

The voluntary agreement, called an “informal resolution agreement,” EGLE has since entered into with the EPA looks to address those concerns.

In the agreement, effective as of Aug. 10, 2023, the department promises a host of actions, including: 

  • meeting with community groups and providing reports on that engagement to the EPA for the next two years; 
  • providing an air sensor to Genesee Twp., Mich. where the plant is located, for the next two years; 
  • pursuing funding for a health assessment for the community surrounding the asphalt plant; 
  • providing education surrounding EGLE’s air permitting program; 
  • investing in and improving EGLE’s online information portal; 
  • and developing and sharing guidance for how the public may submit grant applications under EGLE’s new Environmental Justice Public Health Protection program.

For its part, the EPA also shared a commitment to the Flint advocates’ concerns in a letter accompanying the agreement.

“EPA Region 5 will continue its cross-program work to advance environmental justice and equity in Flint, Michigan,” the letter reads, adding that the region’s Air and Radiation Division (ARD) “will conduct additional air monitoring in Flint in the fall of 2023 and commits to discussing the results with stakeholders as soon as they are available.”

While the agreement does address some concerns brought forward in the original complaint, lawyers representing the complainants say EGLE’s promises fall short on solutions for Flintstones.

“What we were really trying to seek was something to provide the local residents with some amount of redress,” said Nicholas Leonard, Executive Director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, one of the groups representing the complainants. 

When asked if he thought the agreement achieved that redress, Leonard said, “No, I don’t think so. Certainly not for local residents.”

Aside from disappointing the roughly 400 families living around the now-operational asphalt plant, Leonard added that the agreement also lets down all Michigan residents seeking environmental justice accountability from EGLE.

“The complaint alleged that EGLE’s air permitting program, basically as it exists, is resulting in discriminatory effects more or less across the state,” he explained, noting that his clients’ conversations with EGLE’s team had centered around the department considering the “cumulative impact” of issuing permits and “pre-existing conditions” in communities where permits are sought.

Those pre-existing conditions, Leonard said, could include “economic conditions, public health conditions, environmental pollution conditions” that should be incorporated into EGLE’s decision making process.

He said there “wasn’t much there” in the agreement that spoke to addressing such an ask, pointing to a section promising public education on EGLE’s current air permit process as “the closest the agreement got.”

For her part, Shariff put it more bluntly: “The way that Michigan shifted course after many months of negotiation … was a breach of trust and a slap in the face. It makes me wonder if EGLE was participating in these negotiations in good faith or basically showing up to be performative.”

In EGLE’s prepared statement on the agreement, the department acknowledged that it did not cover all of the advocates’ concerns, but that it will continue to work with Flint residents on environmental justice issues.

“We realize the agreement does not address all the issues raised by the local residents during our discussions,” the statement reads. “We remain committed to continuing to work with the community to address ongoing concerns. This includes our collaborative work with EPA to address challenges presented in overburdened communities.”

The same group of environmental justice advocates that issued the EPA complaint has another civil rights complaint regarding the asphalt plant before the United States Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). 

The lead counsel on that complaint, Kate Walz of the National Housing Law Project, said that HUD “is still in the process of finalizing its investigation” and she’s been told it may conclude soon.

“But soon is a relative term with federal agencies undertaking these sorts of investigations we have raised with HUD,” she added.

Flint Rising, ETM, St. Francis Prayer Center — joined by Michigan United, C.A.U.T.I.O.N and the City of Flint — lost a circuit court lawsuit that would have required EGLE to revisit its air permit process for the asphalt plant earlier this summer.

The plant, located at 5088 Energy Drive in Genesee Township, began operations in April 2023.

Kate is Flint Beat's associate editor. She joined the team as a corps member of Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues....