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New EGLE office helps to sustain communities along the Great Lakes through the lens of Environmental Justice

Steel plant in Detroit in the distanceAs EGLE's three-day Environmental Justice Conference kicks off today, MI Environment looks at environmental justice efforts in Great Lakes communities in this article by Regina Strong, Environmental Justice Public Advocate, that appeared in the recently-released State of the Great Lakes report.

The connection between Michigan and other Great Lakes communities is based not only on the region's abundant natural resources and interdependent economies, but also on the impact of those connections on the wellbeing of the area's residents.

As a region with a longstanding industrial past, its residents, particularly those in vulnerable and Environmental Justice communities, have dealt with legacy challenges for decades. Recognizing the resulting complexities, ranging from access to drinking water to residents affected by pollution, the state took action to address impacts on people across the state. In early 2019, Governor Whitmer created the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate and the role of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate.

The Executive Order that created the office also created an Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team, bringing several state agencies together to develop statewide strategies. The office works collaboratively across state agencies to proactively engage with the communities to address Environmental Justice issues and complaints. Efforts focus on ensuring that low-income residents and communities of color are equitably represented in various actions. The office also works closely with 12 federally- recognized tribes in Michigan on a wide range of Great Lakes and environmental issues.

Earlier this year, Governor Whitmer stressed the importance of including the voices of people affected by environmental issues: "We must ensure that the implementation and enforcement of environmental protections, regulations and policies in Michigan will be fair and meaningful to all Michiganders, regardless of geography, race, color, origin or income." Michigan has the unique distinction of serving as the heart of the automotive industry, along with industrial sites and businesses on the shores of the Great Lakes.

From historic logging operations to industries that compromised the ecosystem of the lakes, the work of the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate addresses impacts on communities that are economically disadvantaged and continue to be disproportionally affected by cumulative effects of past environmental degradation. The office takes a holistic approach in considering how these communities are affected by decision making and looks for ways to improve policies and public engagement. The goal is to ensure that the state's residents have opportunities for meaningful access and equitable participation in the development and implementation of environmental laws and regulations.

With significant investments under way in Great Lakes restoration, work continues to address challenges presented by Michigan's industrial past, as well as new emerging issues such as the contaminant PFAS. These efforts ensure that Michigan creates an equitable and vibrant quality of life in communities across the state, while protecting residents and preserving the state's resources.

Last year, the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate and the Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team launched the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice. The council serves as an advisory voice for the state on Environmental Justice issues and includes representation from front-line community members, community organizations, local governments, tribes and labor, as well as business and industry.

To hear directly from communities, the Response Team is also planning virtual regional roundtables around the state in 2021 to ensure that people throughout Michigan are at the table on environmental issues.

The Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate is currently developing a Michigan-specific EJ Screening Tool to better identify Environmental Justice communities. Other efforts under way include work toward integrating Environmental Justice into EGLE's work through training and implementation.

Michigan is moving aggressively to address climate change on numerous fronts, with a focus on ensuring that low-income residents and communities of color are equitably represented in the actions. We are thinking not only about the adaptation and stress issues caused by climate, but also equity and ensuring that low-income residents and communities of color are provided with the tools so both can adapt to climate effects.

Photo caption: Steel plant in Detroit in the distance.

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