Environmental injustice?

Activists claiming a planned Flint steel mill would adversely affect minority communities were outraged but not surprised when the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency dismissed their complaint Friday.

"The outcome was predetermined," said Julie Hurwitz, an attorney for the Sugar Law Center. "The EPA is under so much pressure on this issue they just decided to cave in."

That pressure has come from a variety of sources including: the Engler administration and its Department of Environmental Quality; Detroit Mayor Dennis Archer, who has led the nation's mayors in a protest of the EPA's environmental justice policies; and big business.

The issue concerns Title VI of the Civil Rights Act and a 1994 executive order by President Bill Clinton. That order mandated that the EPA must consider the potential negative health threats to minority communities when issuing permits to projects that would pollute.

In this case, the complaint alleged that the DEQ's permit to the Select Steel Corporation of America for a proposed steel recycling mill in Genesee Township would have a discriminatory impact on minority residents. The complaint also said the MDEQ permitting process was discriminatory because it did not allow for adequate public input.

Opponents of the mill are convinced the EPA's decision was based more on politics than science because of the speed with which the complaint was rejected. The EPA currently has a backlog of 18 environmental justice complaints -- all of which were filed before the Flint case, some of which have been under investigation since 1993. The EPA has not yet rendered a decision on any of the others.

In the Flint case, however, the EPA acted with lightning speed. The complaint was accepted for investigation in August, meaning the whole process lasted less than three months from start to finish.

Hurwitz said that she was told by EPA Office of Civil Rights Director Ann E. Goode that the Flint case was catapulted to the top of the list in order to send the message that the EPA "was not anti-business."

Goode was not available for comment Monday.

In her letter dismissing the complaint, Goode wrote that the "EPA has attempted to conduct this investigation expeditiously, taking into account the need for certainty in the regulatory process ... while at the same time seriously reviewing the concerns expressed by the Complainants."

Critics also pointed out that the agency didn't conduct a comprehensive analysis that would take into account the cumulative impact the mill would have when combined with other sources of pollution in the immediate area.

"The north part of the Flint area is inundated in terms of smoke stacks and polluters," said Janice O'Neal, spokesperson for the group Flint-Genesee Citizens United for Action.

O'Neal and others criticized the EPA for relying upon "seriously flawed" DEQ data that offers a distorted picture of the racial composition of the area surrounding the proposed mill.

"People should not have to trade off their health or quality of life to have the possibility of jobs," said O'Neal.

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