Residents of Hamtramck, Michigan, wait in long lines to receive a water filter after elevated levels of lead were found in the drinking water in Oct. 2021.

Opinion: In a Michigan City, Environmental Justice Gets a Critical Test

A battle over a toxic waste facility is bringing renewed attention to a regulatory concept known as cumulative risk.

Drive 10 to 15 minutes north from downtown Detroit and you may pass through Hamtramck, Michigan, a city of just about 2 square miles that’s home to many communities of color, including Yemeni and Bangladeshi immigrants and African Americans. Here, in an area where nearly 70 percent of households speak a language other than English, a case of environmental injustice is unfolding — one that is a microcosm of nationwide efforts to advance health equity for generations to come.

More than 2,000 of Hamtramck’s roughly 22,000 residents live within a half-mile radius of the U.S. Ecology Detroit North waste management facility, which processes and stores toxic heavy metals and other toxic waste produced by commercial entities and governments. Over the years, the facility has amassed a spotty track record on environmental safety compliance. In 2016, the Detroit Free Press obtained records showing the company had accrued 150 wastewater violations since 2010, for infractions that included discharging water with excessive levels of toxic mercury and arsenic into the city sewer system. In 2017, independent tests of public lands surrounding the facility found soil samples containing arsenic, a known carcinogen, at levels almost 20 times the EPA safety limit. (The facility has longstanding waivers that exempt it from groundwater and soil monitoring.)

Several years ago, as residents began to catch wind of a proposed expansion that would increase the site’s chemical waste storage capacity ninefold and permit it to process 30 new categories of hazardous waste, including cancer-causing aflatoxins, local activists cried foul. They filed petitions and staged protests, to little avail. In 2020, after delaying its final decision and extending the public commenting period, the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy, the state agency that oversees hazardous waste management, approved the facility’s expansion.

A battle to protect residents of Hamtramck is now being waged by the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, which has filed a formal grievance with the EGLE’s Nondiscrimination Compliance Coordinator. The coordinator reviews Title VI complaints in accordance with Environmental Protection Agency regulation. In addition to violating that regulation, the law center alleges that the decision to issue the expanded license to the U.S. Ecology facility also constitutes discrimination under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act. The grievance notes that 80 percent of the residents within a 3-mile radius of the site are people of color.

The lawyers contend that, although the EGLE provided public notice of the proposed expansion, the agency failed to make those notices available in languages appropriate for the many Arabic and Bengali-speaking immigrants who live near the facility. Further, the complaint states, public hearings that were promised to be language-accessible, at the behest of residents and grassroots organizations, ultimately were not. EGLE has since released a Limited English Proficiency Plan that outlines steps the agency will take to comply with federal civil rights law and public notice requirements in the future.

Meaningful language access to legally mandated environmental information disclosures is a key component of many regulations and EPA discrimination-related complaints. But another, perhaps more far-reaching criticism leveled in the Hamtramck grievance centers on a concept that has become a perennial point of contention in environmental regulation: an idea known as cumulative risk.

A large body of research in disciplines such as toxicology and social epidemiology has demonstrated that environmental pollutants can act in conjunction with one another, and that a person’s health can be negatively impacted by the accumulation of health risks over his or her lifetime. The nature of these risks extends beyond toxic chemical and biological exposures; stress-inducing socioeconomic conditions, often prevalent among people of color, pose risks to human health as well. These factors may act cumulatively or even synergistically with environmental toxicants to exacerbate the risk of adverse health outcomes.

There’s reason to believe that such cumulative risks could be inordinate in communities in and around Hamtramck. The city is marked by high population density and poverty rates, two factors that are associated with high incidence of chronic disease. Predominantly Black areas of metropolitan Detroit already face high volumes of industrial pollution and have some of the highest asthma rates in the country. In Hamtramck, many Bangladeshi and Yemeni immigrants have had to endure both chemical exposure and social toxicity. In addition to ongoing xenophobic and Islamophobic discrimination, some Yemeni immigrants still suffer psychological and biological effects of forced displacement from their home country, a war-torn nation where violence, famine, and disease are commonplace. These comorbidities and social stressors would likely be amplified by further exposure to environmental pollution.

Moreover, Bangladeshi immigrants to the U.S. come from a country that has among the highest level of groundwater arsenic contamination in the world, and many have brought their agricultural traditions to Detroit, where they rely on urban farming. They may be fearful of the cumulative toll that continued exposure to arsenic in groundwater and soil could take on their health.

Predominantly Black areas of metropolitan Detroit already face high volumes of industrial pollution and have some of the highest asthma rates in the country.

In its grievance against EGLE, the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center argues that the agency should have assessed these cumulative risks before approving the expansion of the U.S. Ecology Detroit North site. The complainants maintain that Michigan’s continual permitting of polluters that contribute to Hamtramck’s disproportionate burden of health-related risks is, in itself, discriminatory.

However, there exist few federal mechanisms for compelling state and local agencies to consider cumulative risk when reviewing permit applications. The EPA has spent this past year developing long-awaited updates to its framework for planning and implementing cumulative risk assessments, with the aim of encouraging more health-focused state permitting decisions, but the guidance is not legally binding. The National Environmental Policy Act requires cumulative risk assessments only for facilities that receive federal funding, a category that excludes facilities such as U.S. Ecology’s Detroit-North site. (Even for those facilities that are subject to the policy act, the law does not actually require that states base their decisions off the results of the cumulative risk assessments.)

In the absence of a federal mandate, cumulative risk assessments are not standard in most states’ environmental regulations. In part, this may be because implementing and enforcing state-level cumulative risk assessments require significant investments of time and resources: Stakeholders must come to terms on every aspect of these complex analyses, from the types of stressors that a risk assessment must consider to the methodology for estimating how a new activity might elevate population-level risks.

Still, those hurdles have not stopped some states from formally incorporating cumulative risk assessment into their environmental protection laws. Some states limit these laws to certain types of emissions; New York for instance, enforces cumulative risk assessments for air pollution. But other states, such as Massachusetts and Minnesota, have adopted wider-reaching cumulative risk measures and include mechanisms for community participation. The Hamtramck case illustrates why it’s so important for more states to follow their lead.

The outcome of the grievance filed on behalf of Hamtramck’s residents is still pending. But this much seems clear: Decades of science have shown that the health risks of environmental pollution, particularly in marginalized communities, cannot be measured in toxicity levels alone. Until lawmakers formally codify this principle into law, environmental justice will continue to prove elusive for marginalized communities like those in Hamtramck.

Farah Kader is a New York-based research analyst. She holds a B.A. in public health from the University of California-Berkeley and an MPH in environmental health sciences from the University of Michigan.