Addressing cumulative impacts: lessons from environmental justice screening tool development and resistance

Date01 February 2022
by Arianna Zrzavy, Molly Blondell, Wakako Kobayashi, Bryan Redden,
and Paul Mohai
Arianna Zrzavy is an Analyst for ILLUME Advising, LLC. Molly Blondell is a Program Manager at the Yale School
of Environment. Wakako Kobayashi is a Digital Engagement Associate at the Global Strategic Communications
Council. Bryan Redden is an Environmental Planner for the Environmental Resource Department in St. Lucie
County, Florida. Paul Mohai is Professor in the School for Environment and Sustainability at the University of
Michigan, a member of the Michigan Advisory Council on Environmental Justice, and Lead Investigator on
a project to advance development and use of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s EJSCREEN.
This Article discusses how disparate environmental burdens can be addressed using environmental justice (EJ)
screening tools. It identif‌ies states t hat have developed state-speci f‌ic EJ screening tools, analyzes these tools’ func-
tions, and identif‌ies strategies to overcome resistance to them. The authors conducted interviews with multiple
stakeholder groups to understand how state-specif‌ic sc reening tools are used, and make a series of recommenda-
tions for states to follow as they proceed in their efforts to develop EJ screening tools.
For more than 15 years, community leaders in south-
west Detroit have taken interested groups on “toxic
tours” through their neighborhoods, directing tour-
ists’ attention to the industries like steel mil ls and oil rener-
ies that surround them.¹ e leaders continue to host these
tours in the hopes that others will see what community
members have felt for decades: that they are overburdened
by pollution.² Southwest Detroit—also known by its zip
code, 48217—experiences the hig hest air pollution in the
state, and consequently suers from high rates of cancer,
asthma, and other respiratory ailments.³
ere are currently 52 heavy industrial sites within a
three-mile radius of this zip code, a nd almost one-half of
them handle toxic chemical waste. Industries in this area
have technically been in compliance for their individual
emissions under the Clean Air Ac t (CA A), yet these c hemi-
cals in combination have created toxic conditions. In 4 821 7,
health issues vary from respiratory illnesses like asthma,
which are 50% higher than t he state average, to cancer rates
that are 25% higher than the state average. e combi na-
tion of health and social disadva ntage in 48217 and sur-
1. Detroit Public Television, Toxic Town: Michigan’s Most Polluted Zip Code, Y -
T (June 15, 2017),
2. Id.
3. Lisa Berglund, “We’re Forgotten”: e Shaping of Place Attachment and Col-
lective Action in Detroit’s 48217 Neighborhood, 42 J. U. A. 1 (2018);
Terressa A. Benz, Toxic Cities: Neoliberalism and Environmental Racism in
Flint and Detroit, Michigan, 45 C S. 49 (2019).
4. Zoë Schlanger, Choking to Death in Detroit: Flint Isn’t Michigan’s Only Disas-
ter, N (Mar. 30, 2016),
michigan-air-pollution-poison-southwest-detroit-441914.html; Benz, supra
note 3.
5. 42 U.S.C. §§7401-7671q, ELR S. CAA §§101-618.
6. Schlanger, supra note 4; Benz, supra note 3.
7. Berglund, supra note 3.
Authors’ Note: This Article would not have been possible without
the contributions and assistance of many individuals. First, we
wish to sincerely thank the wonderful people of the Michigan
Environmental Justice Coalition and their (now former) execu-
tive director, Michelle Martinez, for their valuable support and
guidance throughout this project. We also thank our many in-
terviewees who have generously shared their time to share their
perspectives and contribute to our research. Lastly, we would
like to give special thanks to all the community members, orga-
nizers, and activists who have shared their powerful stories with
us, and continue to work toward a just and sustainable future.
As the majority of our research was conducted while we
were students at the University of Michigan, we respectfully ac-
knowledge that the university resides on the traditional lands
of the Anishinaabeg—the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Bodewadmi.
As we continue to work, play, and live on these territories, we
encourage everyone to ref‌lect on the ongoing effects of colo-
nization on indigenous peoples and tribal sovereignty. We af-
f‌irm that this acknowledgment is the f‌irst of many steps and that
in order to support indigenous people and be good neighbors
to and stewards of their homelands, we should take meaningful
action toward decolonization.
Copyright © 2022 Environmental Law Institute®, Washington, DC. Reprinted with permission from ELR®,, 1-800-433-5120.

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