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Michigan's Contemporary Role in the Environmental Justice Movement

African-American community struggles have not only gained national attention through the years, but they have also led to subsequent studies and conferences on the differential exposure of environmental hazards on low-income and people of color communities. A 1983 General Accounting Office (GAO) report found that landfills in the EPA’s Region IV were distributed disproportionately in predominantly African-American communities. In 1987, the United Church of Christ (UCC) Commission of Racial Justice Study found the racial pattern of locating landfills in people of color communities was national in character. More specifically, the report stated that among a variety of indicators race was the best predictor of the location of hazardous waste facilities in the United States. Scholarly writings by Beverly Wright, Michael Gelobter, Charles Lee, Bob Bullard, Ivette Perfecto, Pat West, Paul Mohai, Dorceta Taylor, Elaine Hockman, and Bunyan Bryant basically support the same findings of the studies listed above.

The academic studies have demonstrated that low-income and particularly minority groups are more significantly impacted by such hazards than their more affluent white counterparts.

The GAO and the UCC studies encouraged Bunyan Bryant and Paul Mohai, professors at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment, to organize a 1990 retrieval/dissemination conference entitled “Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards,” sometimes referred to as the Michigan Conference. This conference attempted to extend the knowledge of struggles taking place around the country. Thirteen of the scholar-activists who presented papers on environmental justice were people of color. There were approximately 30 participant observers from USEPA, the Michigan State Department of Public Health, the State Department of Natural Resources, and the Governor’s Office.

This conference and the subsequent proceedings have had an impact on national and local policy. This conference was influential in shaping national environmental policy leading to changes in the Environmental Protection Agency and an Executive Order under U.S. President Bill Clinton mandating all federal agencies to include environmental equity considerations in their work. In 1991 the conference proceedings were published in the book Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards: A Time for Discourse edited by Paul Mohai and Bunyan Bryant.

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