WASHINGTON - Lillian Robinson thinks minority neighborhoods have become a dumping ground, and she's fed up.
So she's a party to a lawsuit to block construction of a wood-chip-burning power plant near Flint. She also has persuaded the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to investigate whether putting the plant in her neighborhood violates her civil rights.
"These things happen to the people who can least afford to defend themselves against the onslaught of polluters, said Robinson, an activist who heads Flint/Genesee United for Action, the group fighting the plant.
The case may become a national test case and is being watched by those who claim there is a pattern of placing polluting facilities in poor, minority neighborhoods.
The Genesee Power Station, a $ 95-million, wood-chip-burning plant, is being built in a neighborhood that is 55 percent African American.
But the case is anything but clear-cut. The plant is located in an industrial park zoned for a power plant and the project endured a rigorous review before winning a permit from the state Department of Natural Resources in 1992. Since then, it has survived nine challenges made to the EPA.
"The time for taking appeals for that permit has passed, said Kelly Farr, spokesman for Consumers Power Co., which owns 50 percent of the plant. "The appeals were made, they were rejected.
Genesee Township Supervisor William Ayres calls the opponents' claims "amazing.
The plant, he said, "is on the site of our former solid waste disposal plant, which was an incinerator for burning garbage, which ran with no complaints. It is back-to-back with an asphalt plant and adjacent to a fuel storage depot. Did I mention the cement plant?
Nevertheless, on behalf of Robinson's group, the Flint chapter of the NAACP has sued, asking that construction be stopped.
Residents of the area, who have sought to stop the project since it was proposed, contend emissions from the plant will adversely affect the health of residents and children at a nearby elementary school.
"They come and say, We'll bring jobs. We want to be a good neighbor,' Robinson said. "But is it a good neighbor to come in and destroy my health?
The case is among a handful across the country the EPA is reviewing for possible violations of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.
The law has been successfully applied for years in cases involving housing and employment. But the move into environmental issues "applies it to a new area, said Michael Mattheisen, one of four EPA attorneys handling the cases.
The movement to view pollution as a civil rights issue began in the mid-1980s. Last year, at the direction of the White House, the EPA created a civil rights division to help minority communities saddled disproportionately with landfills and hazardous waste facilities.
In Michigan, the EPA is examining whether there was
unintentional discrimination involved in locating the Genesee Power Station.
The agency has previously dismissed one such complaint.