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EGLE working to map environmental inequality in Michigan

Michigan Department of Energy, Great Lakes and Environment

The state is seeking public feedback on a new map that identifies environmental inequality.

On Tuesday, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy (EGLE) held an instructional webinar on how to use the online resource.

If a user opens the MiEJScreen tool in a web browser, they’ll see a map of Michigan covered in a patchwork of red and blue. But it’s not an election map; these colors represent communities disproportionately impacted by environmental hazards.

The map allows users to toggle between datasets from the U.S. Census and state agencies, revealing the intersection of environmental degradation, socioeconomics and human health.

There’s data on toxic waste sites, contaminated waterways, and lead pipes. Another feature on the map shows the prevalence of health conditions like asthma or heart disease, as well as demographic information like race and average income.

By compiling all those datasets, EGLE has assigned each census tract an “overall score.” Higher scores represent higher levels of exposure to environmental hazards, and a population’s sensitivity to those impacts.

In states like California and Washington, similar maps have been used for allocating grant money, prioritizing places with the most need. These maps have been used to fund clean-up at toxic waste sites, and tree-planting to capture carbon and improve air quality.

Based on “overall score,” there appears to be a low level of environmental hazards in northern Michigan compared to urban areas downstate. But when you toggle between certain datasets, the picture is much more nuanced.

Plenty of communities Up North are in the higher percentiles of census tracts with a “housing burden.” This map feature shows places where people spend more than 30 percent of their income on housing. Northern Michigan also scores high for impaired water bodies, meaning the percent of lakes and rivers with some level of pollution.

EGLE is taking public comments on MiEJScreen until May 16. It will then make any needed changes before finalizing the mapping tool.

Patrick Shea was a natural resources reporter at Interlochen Public Radio. Before joining IPR, he worked a variety of jobs in conservation, forestry, prescribed fire and trail work. He earned a degree in natural resources from Northland College in Ashland, Wisconsin, and his interest in reporting grew as he studied environmental journalism at the University of Montana's graduate school.