By Samuel Tucker
In 2019, The University of Michigan published a study identifying the areas in Michigan with the highest environmental injustice. Grand Rapids’ own Roosevelt Park neighborhood in the Southern part of the city, was one of the highest ranked in the state.
According to the research, areas with a high environmental injustice score meant that communities had a high-risk exposure to environmental hazards along with social factors. Grand Rapids was ranked one the highest among other cities like Lansing, Flint, and Detroit, and five of the 10 census tracts with the highest environmental justice risk were in Kent County alone.
Grand Rapids’ Roosevelt Park Neighborhood is part of the highest ranked census tract in the state. West Michigan Environmental Action Council Executive director Bill Wood, filled The Collegiate in on why Grand Rapids is at the top of the list, and why this community, in particular, is being affected so adversely.
Wood explained that US-131 traffic emissions are the main contributor to air pollution in the area, which makes Roosevelt Park Neighborhood’s location less than ideal.
“Other factors like heavy diesel traffic on Grandville Avenue and likely, local proximity to Waste to Energy facilities in the nearby area are all contributing factors to the poor surrounding air quality,” Wood said.
Amy Brower, Executive Director of the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood Association, noted the other social factors that are important to keep in mind that also impact this community, and during the COVID-19 pandemic, they’ve all but subsided.
“As a predominantly brown and black community, the Roosevelt Park Neighborhood has been negatively and disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” Brower said. “Beyond the increased risk of getting sick from COVID-19, there’s also been increased stressors such as employment loss due to workplace closures, managing children while in-person school was closed, or working in an environment that requires close contact with co-workers or does not provide paid sick time.”
With these factors alone, the community is under high pressure just to support and provide for their families. Giving communities clean air to breathe is what local residents want to see at the forefront of their local government’s agenda as the community slowly emerges from a pandemic that has seen a widespread impact on communities facing these air and health problems for generations.
Brower said what concerns her most is the fact that, “a neighborhood should be a safe and healthy environment for all residents. The results of the U of M environmental justice study is especially concerning due to the high percentage of youth that we have in Roosevelt Park (nearly half of our community are 18 or younger) as they deserve to grow up and thrive in a healthy environment.”
The U of M study provides tools for our state to identify and monitor the communities that need its help the most, but it’s up to our local leaders to make the change that’s needed. With this study being published in 2019, local governments have had two years to consider this information, and community members are still left with concerns around air quality. So, what is there to change and where to start?
“Getting all but the most necessary heavy truck traffic off local, neighborhood streets is an immediate improvement that can be made,” said Wood.
This seems to be one place where change has taken place over the last two years.
“A local group of organizers and activists has been making strides in getting some of the heavy truck traffic off of Grandville Avenue,” said Wood.
As far as long-term solutions go, solutions could potentially lie in implementing large-scale tree plantings along heavily used roads and highways to mitigate air pollution. One issue however, is that US-131 is out of the city’s control, since the Michigan Department of Transportation is responsible for Michigan’s highway system.
“As for the city, there are grants and funding opportunities to make monitoring work from the budget side. Part of the issue here may be that the city needs to have a plan to deal with the pollution if it installs a robust monitoring regime. In the case of 131 traffic, there may not be many levers the city could pull to reduce pollution from a source that is out of its control,” said Wood.
The last question I have in my mind is, why aren’t these solutions being implemented? Wood gave a hard but honest answer.
“It’s a classic Environmental Justice situation – rerouting truck traffic costs money. Getting a better handle on the waste West Michigan creates impacts the bottom line for companies that are the generators of the kinds of waste that end up being incinerated. The environmental and health costs are externalized when a community like Roosevelt Park bears the burden while others benefit from a lack of regulation or enforcement. Whether it is intentional or just cold indifference, a majority BIPOC community suffers from the pollution generated for the sake of economic profit.”
Economic profit might be a hard egg to crack, but when it comes to putting checks and balances on those profits, that’s where local governments come into play. And according to Wood, “making sure that the candidates that we’ll be voting for are even aware of these issues is critical.”
“Of course we could all do a better job at locally sourcing our food, driving less, etc., but at the political level, there are a number of city, county and even state-level commissions where residents can get involved and actually influence some of the decisions being made,” Wood added.
Whether you are a resident of Roosevelt Park or not, air quality issues like this matter. Everyone has a right to clean air and we can use our power to vote to make sure this right is given to all members of our community. Grand Rapids needs to do everything it can for its communities that need its help the most. A community that’s breathing in harmful air just off of their front porch, is a community that needs change.
And according to Wood, through local government is how this change can happen.
“Both the City of GR and the Kent County websites have lists of those commissions and their vacancies. For those with the time to commit, I’d strongly advocate for getting involved on that level.”