Is Your Neighborhood A Toxic Wasteland?
In Kalamazoo, A Mom & Veteran Is Fighting For Clean Air Amidst An Expanding Polluter
“Kalamazoo is like a toxic wasteland,” Brandi Crawford-Johnson, a disabled veteran and resident of Kalamazoo, Michigan’s Northside neighborhood told The Brockovich Report in a recent interview.
“Erin Brockovich gave me a lot of inspiration,” she said. (Thanks, Brandi, you inspire me too!)
In 2018, Brandi saw a news article that startled her, stating that Kalamazoo, a town of about 75,000 people, had some of the dirtiest air in the nation.
“I looked at the source for the information and it was the American Lung Association,” Brandi said. “In their ‘State of the Air’ report from that year, Kalamazoo received an F for air quality.”
She wondered if there was a connection to her severe asthma. She’s not a smoker and her doctor couldn’t figure out why her health was so bad, triggering her to need three different inhalers, two medications, and a nebulizer.
She started to research polluters in her area. She found the two top polluters: Pfizer and Graphic Packaging International (GPI). GPI’s cardboard packaging plant was located in the city limits.
Brandi got active, joining The Environmental Concerns Committee for the city to try to tackle the air pollution problems. Once she was appointed to the committee, she sent them the research and reporting about the air quality.
But she soon hit her first setback. After attending her first meeting, she learned that the committee sent a cease-and-desist letter to all the reporters and data companies that relayed information on the town’s air quality “for fear it would ruin Kalamazoo’s reputation,” she said.
“I was shocked,” Brandi told us. So, she quit the committee.
Her next call was to her state regulator, the Michigan Department of Environment, Great Lakes and Energy, known as EGLE. She spoke with an air quality inspector, who assured her everything was fine. She filed a notice of strong odors against Graphic Packaging, anyway, asking questions like: Are they using pollution prevention? Do they have filters on their smoke stacks?
Brandi was told the company was in compliance and that their stacks had been tested regularly.
“I believed her, like a lot of people do, who believe the EPA and EGLE,” she said. “We don’t learn about environmental issues in high school or college unless we are studying those subjects.”
She didn’t know at that time that others in the neighborhood were also filing odor complaints.
Like many people, Brandi’s life was upended during the pandemic. She and her family sold their house and were set to move to Florida to be closer to her family, but lockdown restrictions kept them in Michigan. Her family spent some time renting a house in a different part of Michigan, and during that time her asthma was much less severe.
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Talk to Your Neighbors
Her love for Kalamazoo stayed strong, and she bought another home in her neighborhood in Kalamazoo. Within days of moving in, her eyes started burning when she stepped outside. She bought some eye drops but they didn’t help. She went back to her doctor for allergy eye drops, but those didn’t work either.
She started talking to her neighbors in the predominantly Black community. It turned out that many of them had asthma as well, along with COPD and burning eyes.
She contacted the local wastewater plant and found out that they had been monitoring for hydrogen sulfide, but the public hadn’t been notified about it. She kept researching, making Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests to the city of Kalamazoo. She found an odor study from 2009 that showed gas leaks at Graphic Packaging and the wastewater treatment site (located next to the plant). And there were more violations.
It turns out that EGLE, has issued eight violation notices to Graphic Packaging since 2012 for odor violations, according to local media.
The Next Step
Fast forward to this September. Brandi filed a civil rights complaint with the U.S. EPA, saying that state environmental regulators discriminated against the majority African American neighborhoods surrounding the plant when they approved an air permit for Graphic Packaging International last year.
The permit allowed the company to expand its plant “despite several reported violations of non-compliance” with federal air quality standards, says the EPA's response to her complaint.
EGLE is reviewing the complaint, and more media is starting to take notice and write about this issue.
Brandi continues to speak at national environmental justice meetings and at the White House environmental justice council meetings.
“I didn’t know we were considered a frontline community and I didn’t know about environmental racism, I didn’t know anything,” she said when she started her activism.
I’m glad she knows now and continues to act. It’s all we can do. Bring awareness and keep fighting.
P.S. The "State of the Air" 2021 report finds that despite some nationwide progress on cleaning up air pollution, more than 40 percent of Americans are still living in places with unhealthy air quality, and the burden is not shared equally. People of color are more than three times more likely to be breathing the most polluted air than white people.
Does this stink sound familiar? Read about another containerboard plant in South Carolina here. It’s time to stop the toxic stink, everywhere.