Finding a Way Forward: Great Lakes Environmental Law Center

Nick Leonard is the executive director of the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center (GLELC), an environmental justice organization based out of the Green Garage. GLELC advocates on behalf of local, often marginalized communities to ensure that they are able to enjoy the benefits of a healthy environment. They’re the organization that brought legal action against the now-closed Detroit Incinerator in 2019.

Nick says that the COVID19 pandemic has fundamentally altered the nature of GLELC’s work, which is rooted in community meetings and interpersonal interactions. “All of our community meetings going virtual has made our work a lot harder,” he says. “It’s harder to reach the people we work with, who might not have Internet access or who might not be available to hop on a Zoom call.” 

The change has taken on a toll on Nick personally. “Interacting with people at those meetings and having the opportunity to connect with people individually, giving somebody a hug, sharing a meal with them, that’s where I’ve gotten my energy for this work, which is hard and which can be depressing, honestly. It’s been a huge energy drain to have that source of motivation go missing and not to have a replacement for it.”

Despite this, GLELC has taken decisive steps forward during the COVID-19 crisis. Nick says that, “overnight, the pandemic and the murder of George Floyd changed the direction of our work to focus on a few very specific projects. With all these things happening and being put into the forefront of everybody’s consciousness, we felt a responsibility to do everything we could to address these issues in our work.”

Their first efforts along those lines came early in the pandemic, when GLELC successfully lobbied the state of Michigan to end water shutoffs. This was an area they had been actively working in prior to the COVID crisis, but the state had not been receptive to their challenges. But in March, with a state of emergency being declared, it was more important than ever that low-income people in Detroit and elsewhere in Michigan have access to the water they needed to wash their hands and stay safe. “Our role,” Nick says, “was to bring forward a formal legal request that the state was going to have to respond to.” They worked quickly, pulling the petition together over a weekend, and after about two weeks of back and forth with Governor Whitmer’s administration, an executive order was in place.

More recently, GLELC has been working on filing a civil rights complaint with the state of Michigan’s Department of Environment, Great Lakes, and Energy (EGLE) over their decision to allow a ninefold expansion of a local hazardous waste treatment and disposal company’s storage capacity at one of their Detroit facilities. That facility, Nick notes, is located in a majority-Black neighborhood with a history of racist zoning that dates back to the 1940s. He says that the residents are being discriminated against by the state in a classic case of environmental racism. (This is part of a more widespread problem in Michigan; Nick says that 65% of the people who live within three miles of one of the 8 hazardous waste facilities in the state are people of color.)

“It felt like an urgent time to bring these issues to the forefront of EGLE’s mind,” Nick says. “In recent months, we have a state environmental agency saying that environmental justice is a priority, and a governor saying that racism is a public health crisis,” Nick says. “We wanted to come to the table and say, ‘Here’s something specific that we need to fix and here’s how you can fix it.’”

How the state will respond remains to be seen. But for the Great Lakes Environmental Law Center, the related crises of COVID19 and systemic racism in the US have clearly had a galvanizing influence.

“When is your line in the sand?” Nick asks. “If not now, when is it? That’s the attitude we’re bringing to our work right now.”  

This is part of a series looking at how Green Garage businesses-in-residence are moving forward during the COVID19 crisis. No one story is intended to paint a complete picture, but taken together, we hope that they will illuminate, in a helpful way, the struggles and successes of some Detroit businesses during these extraordinary times.

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