The Time is Now for A New Environmental Justice Policy, by Michael Centrone

When Select Steel Inc. proposed construction of a $175 million steel mill that would create 200 jobs in the economically-distressed community of Genesee County, Michigan, the majority of local residents welcomed the proposal. But thanks to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) so-called environmental justice policy, which purports to protect minorities from being disproportionately affected by pollution, last year the company was forced to locate to a more affluent area, depriving economically-disadvantaged minorities the opportunity to get high-paying manufacturing jobs.1

When Select Steel announced its plan to establish a plant in Genesee County in 1998, a majority of residents very much wanted its $16-per-hour jobs.2 Genesee County is still reeling from the closure of General Motors facilities and the per capita income of Genesee workers has significantly declined. Only a small number of activists opposed the plant. Said a township supervisor, “Only a few people didn’t want Select Steel to come and they are the people who have a problem with any kind of development.”3 Members of the local St. Francis Prayer Center, a religious organization, filed a complaint with the EPA in June, 1998 claiming that pollution from Select Steel would unfairly affect minorities because the proposed plant would be in a neighborhood with a high minority population. But after initiating an investigation, the EPA announced it was dropping the case after discovering that the area surrounding the proposed plant in fact consisted of an 84% white population.4 Undaunted, the activists appealed the EPA’s decision. After nine months of agitation, the frustrated company gave up and located the plant in Ingham County, where unemployment is just 3.2% as compared to 5.6% in Genesee County.5

Outraged Michigan politicians blasted the activists and the EPA’s policy. Said Congressman James Barcia (D-MI), “I can’t understand it. They just don’t want economic development in Michigan.”6 Russ Harding, director of the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, said the Clinton Administration seems to have “an anti-urban environmental agenda”7 while Senator Carl Levin (D-MI) wondered “how in heaven’s name would the environment of this nation be improved” by stopping the creation of jobs in depressed communities?8

The environmental justice issue has been of growing concern to African-American leaders and businesses ever since President Bill Clinton signed a 1994 environmental justice executive order centering on the belief that minority and low-income communities suffer an unfair share of environmental problems.9 The executive order allows the EPA to deny environmental permits whenever it determines that pollutants will disproportionately affect communities with particular racial or ethnic characteristics.10

But this policy is widely opposed by an array of minority advocacy groups, state and local officials, and trade associations including the National Black Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Black County Officials, the National Council of Mayors, the National Governor’s Association and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. These groups argue that the EPA’s policy causes unnecessary, time-consuming and costly assessments that inhibit job creation. Harry Alford, president of the Black Chamber of Commerce, goes even farther to say, “The EPA is pimping the black community to further their own agenda of a pristine earth at the expense of our jobs.”11 Ironically, the EPA’s policy runs counter to the Administration’s support for revitalizing economically-depressed urban areas through the federal “brownfields” program.

Brownfields are abandoned commercial and industrial properties located in distressed urban communities. According to a U.S. Conference of Mayors report, redevelopment of 81,568 acres of brownfield sites could generate 550,000 jobs and up to $2.4 billion in new tax revenue for U.S. cities.12 Such redevelopment would create jobs that would help reduce the 8% African-American unemployment rate and boost the median weekly income of African-Americans from its 1999 level of $445 as compared to $573 for non-Hispanic whites.13

Due to the EPA’s flawed environmental justice policy, companies like Select Steel, which would be ideal candidates for brownfield sites, are taking their business to other areas, often more affluent, where they can operate without interference by opposition groups claiming discrimination. Detroit’s African-American Mayor Dennis Archer, a major supporter of brownfield redevelopment, strongly condemns the EPA’s environmental justice policy because it is “so vague and so broad that it nullifies everything that we have done to attract companies to our brownfield sites.”14

The Administration’s environmental justice policy is an injustice because it does not balance environmental concerns with the economic needs of minorities. Contrary to what environmentalists may believe, African-Americans do not need special protection from economic improvement.


Michael J. Centrone is a research associate for The National Center for Public Policy Research’s Environmental Policy Task Force. 

1 David Mastio, “EPA Race Policy Costs Flint a Plant,” The Detroit News, March 2, 1999.
2 “Forged in Irony,” The Detroit News, April 7, 1999.
3 Mastio, March 2, 1999.
4 Ibid.
5 “Forged in Irony,” April 7, 1999.
6 David Mastio, “Mostly Whites Live Near Proposed Mill Site,” The Detroit News, August 27, 1998.
7 “Forged in Irony,” April 7, 1999.
8 David Mastio, “EPA Aided Mill Fighters,” The Detroit News, September 23, 1998.
9 “Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-income Populations,” Executive Order 12898, February 11, 1994.
10 “EPA Guidance – Environmental Justice in EPA’s NEPA Compliance Analysis,” downloaded June 1, 2000 from the Environmental Protection Agency,
11 “Green Racism,” The Washington Times, August 7, 1998.
12 “City Report Shows Effects of Brownfields in America,” downloaded June 7, 2000 from the U.S. Conference of Mayors, (webmaster note: this link no longer functioned as of February 2001).
13 Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2000.
14 Henry Payne, “Green Redlining,” Reason Magazine, October, 1998.

Project 21, a leading voice of black conservatives for over 25 years, is sponsored by the National Center for Public Policy Research. Its members have been quoted, interviewed or published over 40,000 times since the program was created in 1992. Contributions to the National Center are tax-deductible and greatly appreciated, and may be earmarked exclusively for the use of Project 21.