On the northwest side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, where more than half the population is black or African American, the aging sewer system is often overburdened, and miles of asphalt and concrete surfaces make stormwater management a challenge. Sometimes heavy rains bring flooding to neighborhoods, and community members have called for action to support their water stewardship.
Antonio Butts, director of Milwaukee’s Walnut Way civic group, said solving problems in such communities has tremendous potential to improve environmental justice. “This is the state’s greatest opportunity for the greatest return on investment because the impact could and will change living standards, quality of life and economic mobility there,” he said.
Wisconsin is one of the states included in a recent Northeast-Midwest Institute report that ranks Midwestern states on their progress on environmental justice issues. Among Midwestern states, Michigan ranked first, Minnesota second, and Illinois third, while Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Indiana ranked lower in that order.
The report ranked states based on 11 factors such as a state agency dedicated to environmental justice, environmental ordinances passed by state legislatures, and the availability of online public tools to help communities understand environmental justice issues . Based in Washington, DC, the Northeast-Midwest Institute is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research organization founded in the 1970s to advance economic development, environmental quality, and regional equity in 18 Northeastern and Midwestern states.
As progress is being made across the Midwest, some community organizers say state governments have limited powers to bring about real change.
The report assessed environmental justice work in the region against criteria related to government action. States with staffs, committees, and programs within state government specifically designed to address environmental justice issues rank higher, as do states that have passed laws promoting environmental justice. The report, which also analyzed progress on environmental justice in the Northeast, found that “coastal states with high population densities and high proportions of [Democratic] Voters” tended to perform better on environmental justice metrics.
“The Republican Party is much more business oriented, and a lot of it [environmental justice] Policies could definitely hurt a lot of companies,” said Nicholas Griffin, the report’s author.
Many Midwestern states face environmental justice issues from industrial pollution because the Mississippi and Great Lakes waterways have historically provided prime real estate for steel mills and other manufacturing facilities. These factories created industrial pollution that persists in some communities today and requires action by local and state governments. Communities near industrial areas are often low-income and majority minority, meaning that pollution issues in such neighborhoods are also issues of racial and economic justice.
Balancing the industry with health and environmental concerns
Along Indiana On the shores of northwestern Lake Michigan, discharges from steel mills, mills and other manufacturing operations into tributaries are threatening the health of nearby residents, said Paula Brooks, environmental justice program manager at Hoosier Environmental Council, an Indianapolis-based environmental agency.
Indiana state agencies, Brooks said, may want to issue more policies to improve environmental justice. However, because the state legislature is controlled by a Republican supermajority, progress on such issues can be blocked. “You always have businesses or industries that are really committed to relaxing regulations,” she said. “But then there are also health implications that need to be considered.”
Meanwhile, Iowa is struggling to keep its water quality problems under control because of the state’s agricultural industry, said Brian Campbell of the Iowa Environmental Council. Communities with higher immigrant populations, such as Perry and Storm Lake, are particularly struggling with the cost of upgrading water infrastructure, he said.
“The state government could do a lot more,” Campbell said. “There are exciting environmental justice policies in a number of states across the country and ways that government agencies have begun to think about environmental justice in their processes and ensure that diverse stakeholders are well represented in decision-making. I think there’s still a long way to go to build that in Iowa.”
Involvement of the EJ community
According to the report, the Midwestern states that have made the greatest strides in environmental justice work have done so with dedicated offices within state agencies responsible for overseeing such issues. For example, Michigan’s Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate was established in 2019 by the office of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer and helped establish the state’s first Environmental Justice Advisory Council, which brings together grassroots organizers, tribal representatives, community members and industry representatives to advise the state on environmental justice issues .
“The way this office is structured is really beneficial for addressing the type of injustices that people are struggling with in their communities,” said Regina Strong, the public advocate for environmental justice in the state. “Michigan has been very focused on advancing our addressing over the past several years [environmental justice].”
One of Strong’s office’s largest projects was cleaning lead water pipes in Benton Harbor, Michigan. This fall it announced that over 90 percent of its lead service lines had been successfully replaced.
Minnesota also scored highly in the report for its comprehensive environmental justice framework and actions to ban PFAS, a toxic chemical linked to certain cancers and reproductive problems, from food packaging. The ban will take effect in 2024 and will require food processing and packaging companies that supply the state to replace PFAS in their products with alternatives. It also prohibits companies in the state from “knowingly” selling or distributing food packaging made with PFAS.
However, there is still work to be done within the state, according to Evan Mullholland of the Minnesota Center for Environmental Advocacy. In particular, he said, the state could take better account of the cumulative impacts of multiple pollution sources on vulnerable communities. For years, MCEA has supported efforts to pass a bill in the state that would require entities applying for permits in disadvantaged or congested areas to quantify the cumulative environmental impacts their developments would have in areas already plagued by other sources of pollution.
“There are many reforms that are needed,” Mullholland said. “Once you open your eyes to environmental injustice, you see it everywhere.”
Keeping environmental journalism alive
ICN offers award-winning free climate reporting and advertising. We depend on donations from readers like you to keep going.
Illinois has also created an Environmental Justice Coordinator position with responsibility for reaching out to vulnerable communities in the state, particularly regarding new construction projects or developments that could impact the environment. Now, when a business applies for a permit to build a new facility in a disadvantaged community, those residents will be notified of the application.
Chris Pressnall, the current environmental justice coordinator, said the Illinois EPA plans to expand its environmental justice work by hiring two new additional employees. Illinois has also developed online public visualization tools to help community members and researchers understand environmental justice geographically. Michigan also plans to release an online tool in the coming months.
Building capacity to work for environmental justice and improving communication between organizations is another important step, Campbell said. “There are many other groups that have been concerned about social justice issues but have not always considered themselves to be environmentally conscious,” he said, adding that getting such groups to talk is critical to advancing justice .
But Roxxanne O’Brien, a community organizer in Minneapolis, questions how far state governments can really go when it comes to environmental justice. For O’Brien, it’s not governments that will ultimately protect residents — it’s residents themselves. For a decade, the community of North Minneapolis, where O’Brien lives, fought hard against the Northern over concerns about toxic air pollution Metals recycling plant.
The facility closed permanently in 2019. O’Brien said the win was largely due to the work of residents, not the government, and that her community shouldn’t have spent a decade fighting to protect the health of their families.
“If I had to rank residents and citizens based on how they’re fighting back,” she said, “I’d give us an ‘A’.”