LANSING— The debate about environmental injustice has grown more serious in Michigan after the Department of Environment Quality (DEQ) recently proposed deregulating 500 chemicals.

These possible changes to the air regulations concern the Michigan Environmental Council (MEC) a lot.

According to MEC, the department is going to propose a rule change requested by industry to deregulate 500 chemicals that have been subject to oversight in the past. The DEQ said the change is because the chemicals that have not been tested for their impact on public health.

“Our primary concern is that the state will stop regulating certain toxics,” said James Clift, policy director for the MEC. “And factories and industrial facilities will go into communities without any assessment of what the impact of the air toxics could be on area residents.”

There are two classifications of chemicals involved, untested chemicals and tested that have no carcinogens.

Clift said the biggest concern is the first type because companies that release them don’t know what their impact is on neighboring communities.

The DEQ said the proposed deregulation would benefit public health because it lets the agency target the most serious chemicals threats.

“This change better focuses our permitting process and our staff time on the pollutants that are most concerning,” said Karen Tommasulo, a public information officer at DEQ.

“So we currently have a model that requires us to look at 1,200 different chemicals when facilities apply for a permit. And we are essentially the only state that does that.

“Even the EPA only looks at 187 contaminants. So what we want to do is to really define those chemicals of most concern that put public health most at risk,” she said.

Tommasulo added that, whenever a company applies for a permit, it has to disclose to the DEQ everything it will be emitting, whether it is on the list of air pollutants or not.

However, the MEC’s predictions differ from the DEQ’s. Clift said that the untested chemicals still have potential to put the public health at risk.

“In the past, they assumed that any chemical that hasn’t been studied was extremely toxic, and the company can only emit a very small quantity of it. So even if they are very toxic, it would not have any impact,” Clift said.

“But if we implement this deregulation, in the future there would be no assessment whatsoever of those chemicals. They would just be ignored,” he said.

Clift said another big concern is that those chemicals would be deregulated regardless of the quantity emitted.

“We think whenever you are looking at potential impacts to a community, you are always considering both toxicity and quantity,” he said. “If there is low toxicity and large quantities, those could have an impact on a community, and those will not be assessed under the new program.”

According to the MEC, Michigan is one of the Great Lake states that regulate industry facilities’ toxic air emission. Michigan now regulates about 1,200 chemicals in the air, including some presumed toxic chemicals, because their human health impacts are unknown.

Clift said the people who would suffer most live in urban areas where a number of sources emit chemicals.

Sandra Turner-Handy, the MEC’s Detroit-based director of community engagement, said Detroiters stand directly in harm’s way from the effects of proposed rule changes.

According to the Detroit Environmental Agenda released by Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice in 2013, Detroit had at least 12 facilities that were out of compliance with federal air regulations as of the end of 2012.

Also according to the Agenda, Detroit has 55 facilities that have to get special state permission to operate because of their air emissions. Two of them are considered “high priority violators,” including the Marathon Oil Refinery, which was approved for a 20-year, $176 million tax exemption and $10 million in brownfield tax credits.

A study by the University of Michigan analyzed all reported chemical air emissions for exposure of their toxicity to human health and nearby communities. According to Detroiters Working for Environmental Justice, the study found that Detroit has five of the top 25 most-polluted zip codes in the state.

Exposure to air toxins damage developmental, cardiovascular, respiratory and neurological health, contributing to Detroit’s high rates of cancer, asthma and heart disease, the study found. And Detroit’s child asthma and lead poisoning rates are several times higher than the state or national rates.

DEQ lacks “the accountability to marginalized, African-American, people of color, low-income and environmental justice communities,” said Rhonda Anderson, senior organizing representative at the Sierra Club Environmental Justice Program in Detroit.

“These communities live near to some of the largest industries in the state, especially in the Downriver Detroit area,” she said.

Anderson said the Sierra Club has met with DEQ at least five times.

“We organized people to come out to the permit hearings and a march on Oct.4 to talk about all the environmental justice issues,” she said.

The first environmental justice principle of the Sierra Club says it supports right to a clean and healthful environment for all people.

Zhao Peng writes for Capital News Service.

Subscribe to Our Newsletter