Court Arguments Begin Over Toxic Asphalt Plant Near Flint

Community groups point to Michigan’s history of racial discrimination in environmental permitting


Timna Axel, Earthjustice, (773) 828-0712

Five groups serving the Flint community submitted a brief before the Genesee County Circuit Court as they appeal a decision by Michigan’s environmental agency to allow the Ajax corporation to install a toxic asphalt plant in a predominantly Black, low-income, and environmentally overburdened neighborhood. The court will also get briefed by Ajax and will decide whether to hear oral arguments.

Represented by Earthjustice and the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, the community groups argue that Michigan’s Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) violated the Clean Air Act and the state’s air quality rules when they authorized Ajax to build the plant in November of 2021. The groups are asking the Court to send the permit back to EGLE to redo its permitting process.

The asphalt plant sits in Genesee Township next to the northeast corner of Flint, across the street from two public housing developments and single-family homes. Nearly 3,000 people live within a one-mile radius of the plant site, which has not yet started operating.

“Genesee Township has crowded industrial polluters close to Black and low-income homes in this zip code for decades, and as a result the families who live here are hospitalized with asthma at over three times the state average,” said Nayyirah Shariff, director of Flint Rising. “If EGLE’s job is to make sure we have clean air to breathe, they should have denied this permit.”

In the face of overwhelming pushback to the Ajax proposal, EGLE extended their public comment period three times. The agency received nearly 400 comments including from residents, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), and multiple state and federal legislators strongly opposing the plant being built in this neighborhood. EGLE only received one comment in support of the Ajax facility.

“What’s the point of a public comment period or an Environmental Justice score if they don’t impact decisions like this?” said Ted Zahrfeld, board chair of the St. Francis Prayer Center.

In their legal brief, the community groups argue that EGLE failed to get an accurate picture of the plant’s potential emissions, and that the agency relied on data from air monitors located 50 and 100 miles away from the asphalt plant.

“Remember, this is the same agency that enabled Flint’s public health crisis in 2014 when they ignored dangerous levels of lead in our water,” said Tony Paciorek, environmental justice organizer at Michigan United. “Without seeing real change, the level of trust is still very low.”

“We have heard EGLE leaders say they want the environmental agency to be a leader in the environmental justice space,” added Mona Munroe-Younis, executive director of the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint. “Ultimately, it will take changing the environmental permitting process to prioritize people over polluters, and to prevent pollution from being concentrated in vulnerable neighborhoods.”

The groups have also been working with the National Housing Law Project to file federal civil rights claims with the EPA and HUD. A follow-up letter to HUD recently detailed evidence of Genesee Township’s discriminatory intent when it approved the zoning and building permits for the Ajax asphalt plant. These civil rights complaints remain pending.

“People are tired of waiting around and getting sick while these government agencies play hot potato,” said Nick Leonard, executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center. “It’s time for some accountability.”

“When one community bears the disproportionate burden of pollution from industry, that’s a clear environmental injustice,” said John Petoskey, attorney at Earthjustice. “Our government has the power and the responsibility to ensure everyone has clean air to breathe.”

The Environmental Transformation Movement, the St. Francis Prayer Center, Flint Rising, Michigan United, and C.A.U.T.I.O.N, are all members of the Coalition to Stop Ajax Asphalt Plant, a group of local and state-wide organizations formed to protest environmental racism in Flint.

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