Equity needed in meeting Michigan’s internet, water and infrastructure needs, experts say

Image by rony michaud from Pixabay

State and national experts on Thursday discussed the need to incorporate equity in current and future infrastructure plans while wrapping up the Michigan Environmental Justice Conference. 

The conference, whose theme was “Rebuilding Trust, Reimagining Justice and Removing Barriers,” was held online this week and was hosted by the Office of the Environmental Justice Public Advocate, the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, the Michigan Interagency Environmental Justice Response Team and the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE).

On one panel Thursday afternoon, Erin Kuhn, executive director of the West Michigan Shoreline Regional Development Commission, discussed the creation of the Michigan Infrastructure Council in 2018 and its goals to educate, coordinate, prioritize, collaborate and invest within the state of Michigan to further environmental justice initiatives.  

“Infrastructure really has a huge impact on the quality of life and public health and we want to make sure that our infrastructure is protecting that.” Kuhn said. “And our communities really could struggle from an economic development standpoint if they don’t have good, solid, reliable infrastructure. And having that solid, reliable infrastructure also helps to protect that environmental pyramid we all value so much here in the state of Michigan.” 

The event then moved to focus on equity efforts in a variety of sectors across the state, such as access to the internet, safe water and transportation. Tremaine Phillips, a member of the Michigan Public Service Commission, spoke to the conference about the need to examine past infrastructure policy decisions in order to make future decisions.

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“Not only are we trying to inject equity into the infrastructure decisions as we move forward, but we are also trying to unravel the inequities and discrimination and systematic racism that has been placed into the infrastructure,” Phillips said. “It’s just so powerful that these decisions that we make, [as they pertain to] infrastructure are decades, centuries, sometimes millenia long decisions.”

Joshua Edmonds, the director of digital inclusion for the city of Detroit, spoke about the city’s efforts to close the digital divide by providing equitable access to internet, devices and digital skills. Edmonds also emphasized the need to incorporate communities in the what, why and how process of infrastructure planning.

“When we talk about digital equity, it really has to be rooted within the community,” Edmonds said. “It really has to be rooted in certain values… Let’s let communities oftentimes dictate ways that infrastructure, devices and training are then provided within that.” 

Edmonds also discussed Detroit’s partnerships with Quicken Loans, the Skillman Foundation and DTE Energy to secure $23 million in funding Detroit students with devices, broadband, and technological support when the pandemic hit and shifted students into distance learning. 

The discussion concluded with remarks from Justin Kimura, the Assistant Mobile Grand Rapids director, who discussed initiatives in the city pertaining to micro-mobility efforts such as scooters being spread throughout Grand Rapids. 

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Another panel followed, focusing on White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Brenda Mallory’s work on the White House Advisory Council on Environmental Justice to pursue environmental justice across the Great Lakes region and the nation. 

There also were remarks from Regina Strong, EGLE environmental justice public advocate and Katie Kruse, EGLE environmental justice and tribal liaison. 

Mallory discussed how the pandemic has combined with issues of pollution to disproportionately impact Black communities. Mallory also discussed the guiding principles President Joe Biden utilizes when trying to move forward with environmental justice policy — that people have the right to clean water and air and that for too long, people have not had access to those rights.  

“We know better, it’s long passed time to do better,” Mallory said. “At the white house, we hope to honor the work of the leaders and advocates who came before us by incorporating equity for overburdened and underserved communities throughout the administration’s policy initiatives.” 

In his first term, Biden has rolled back Trump-era regulations that made it harder for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to issue strict standards and protections regarding air pollution. Biden has also signed executive orders freezing new oil and gas leases on public lands, an order doubling offshore wind-produced energy and another order aiming to conserve 30% of federal lands and oceans by 2030. 

Since taking office in 2019, Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer reorganized the Department of Environmental Quality into EGLE, added responsibilities to the Michigan PFAS Action Response team and signed an executive order aiming to make the state carbon-neutral by 2050.