Whitmer creates Michigan’s 1st environmental justice panel

Emma Lockridge with the Marathon Petroleum refinery in the background, Detroit | Ken Coleman

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer announced this week the first Michigan Advisory Council for Environmental Justice (MACEJ). 

The 21-member council will advise the Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team (IEJRT), which works with the Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) to assure all Michigan residents receive equal protections from environmental hazards.

Gov. Gretchen Whitmer at the Lansing Women’s March, Jan. 18, 2020 | Anna Liz Nichols

Community activists in areas like Flint and Detroit have long argued that environmental issues in their backyards are ignored by political leaders or take too long to address. The Flint water crisis may be the most well-known example, but Southwest Detroiters also have raised concerns about pollution from plants like the Marathon Petroleum refinery.

The response team is headed by Michigan Environmental Justice Public Advocate Regina Strong. She said her goal for the council is to address how state departments can better address challenges to public safety as they come.

“This is the first time there’s been an office looking at environmental justice in the state of Michigan,” Hall told the Advance on Friday. “As we come up with plans and ideas, as we think about, areas that we want to look at, the council will act as a sounding board for ideas and would share that. This is kind of a really broad group; you get a chance to really come at it from a variety of different angles.”

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Both the council and IEJRT were created as a part of the governor’s sixth executive order in April 2019. The order created EGLE — which was finally established after a battle with Republican legislative leaders — and strengthened environmental offices and protections across the state.

“To address ongoing environmental justice issues, it was absolutely critical that those impacted daily have a seat at the table,” Whitmer said in a press release. “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. Actions like these will help to further rebuild trust in our state government.”  

MACEJ incorporates individuals in different sectors around the state: community organizers professors, health officers and other stakeholders in environmental justice.

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Council members include:

  • Frank Houston, regional program manager and spokesperson for the BlueGreen Alliance. 
  • Sylvia Orduño, community organizer for 22 years with the Michigan Welfare Rights Organization and co-chair of the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Environmental Justice Advisory Council.
  • Fadi Mourad, director of environmental strategy at DTE Energy and member of the Michigan Environmental Rules Review Committee.
  • Justin Onwenu, Sierra Club health communities and environmental justice program organizer.  
  • John Petoskey, member of the Grand Traverse Band of Ottawa and Chippewa Indians.
  • Nichole Britten, health officer for the Berrien County Health Department.