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WOOD TV8 coverage of Environmental Justice report fails to acknowledge the systemic racism that contributes to environmental hazards in specific neighborhoods in Grand Rapids

August 7, 2019

In May, researchers at the University of Michigan published a report entitled, Assessing the State of Environmental Justice in Michigan. The report is 158 pages and is heaving with data and sourcing, but limited in analysis.

Last week, WOOD TV8 did a story based on the findings of the environmental justice report. The channel 8 story did not provide any real context around environmental justice or its principles, even though they did cite the study at the beginning of their story, along with using the phrase that the report, “identifies hot spots of environmental injustice across the state.”

The report looks at numerous factors that determine which communities across the state scored poorly on environmental justice issues. The factors the study looked at were income levels, racial makeup, education levels and language barriers. The report then look at areas that would negatively impact the environments that poor communities of color lived in, such as:

  • Air quality
  • Exposure to toxics
  • Respiratory issues
  • Ozone
  • Lead paint exposure
  • Proximity to high levels of traffic
  • Proximity to hazardous waste sites or incinerators
  • Wastewater discharge indicators
  • Lack of green space

In the conclusion of the report, it states:

The state of Michigan has a long history of manufacturing and industrial activity that has contributed to both the economic development of the state as well as to a culture of strong grassroots movements advocating for environmental quality along with state residents’ health and wellbeing. Additionally, there is along history of correlation between environmental harms and low-income, minority, and indigenous communities. The state of environmental justice in Michigan today can be traced back to these historical factors that shaped the culture and identity of different factions of society in Michigan. Through this research, the team provided evidence that environmental injustice is prevalent in Michigan. However, this study also provides evidence that significant steps can be taken to address environmental inequities.

Here is a map of Grand Rapids, included in the report, which provides data-based assessment of neighborhoods that scored high in terms of the risks. Note that these neighborhoods are predominantly black and latinx.

The WOOD TV8 story goes to the Roosevelt Park neighborhood attempting to talk with residents. People did not want to talk to the channel 8 reporter, so they interviewed someone from the neighborhood association and talked to the Executive Director of WMEAC, both of which were white. Utilizing white voices simply perpetuated the problem of how we view environmental justice, which is a movement that was begun by communities of color.

The channel 8 story did acknowledge that the neighborhood is right next to US 131 and there is a waste management facility nearby. However, there is no historical context as to when and how this neighborhood became a primarily latinx neighborhood.

At the end of the story, the WMEAC spokesperson said one way to combat the problem is to build a green wall, with trees and bushes. Calling it a green wall is an unfortunate description of what mostly an immigrant neighborhood could do to start reducing the pollutants in the neighborhood. More importantly, the WMEAC spokesperson did not discuss the issue of poverty in that area nor the structural racism that those residents face on a daily basis, both of which are critical to any analysis of environmental justice.

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