Former Grad. Student Joins Environmental Council

A former Emory graduate student is on cleanup duty for a major American environmental and public health crisis.

Chris Kolb, executive director of the Michigan Environmental Council, was one of 19 law, environmental science and policy experts appointed to the Environmental Justice Work Group, which Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder created last week to develop materials on environmental and health hazards for the government following the Flint, Mich., water crisis.

Snyder’s creation of the Environmental Justice Work Group came amidst the city’s recovery from a years-long crisis in which Flint residents’ drinking water was contaminated with lead. He created the group in response to recommendations from the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, which he commissioned October 2015 to investigate the phenomena. The new group will examine policy issues and develop guidance, training and curriculum on environmental and health hazards to support government officials, according to a Feb. 15 press release from Snyder’s office.

Kolb, who will co-chair the new work group, pursued graduate studies in political science at Laney Graduate School for one year — but then took a job in the environmental management field instead of completing his Ph.D.

During his time at Laney, Kolb conducted research on interest group politics at the Supreme Court.

“Knowing the power that research can do to further your goals is really important,” Kolb said.  “It was more of the tools and the discipline to apply research in a way that makes a difference.”

Kolb said that in order to recover from the Flint crisis and achieve “environmental justice,” Michigan ought to implement non-discriminatory environmental regulations and collect input from the public during the legislation process. The new work group has not met yet, and Kolb said he does not know when its first meeting will occur.

As co-chair of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, Kolb and his team recommended a mandate of environmental protection guidance and training across all state agencies to standardize assessment protocol during disasters. The team’s findings also suggested that industrial areas were disproportionately burdened with pollution, a disparity that Kolb said he aims to address through the Environmental Justice Work Group.

According to the Flint Water Advisory Task Force report, Flint failed to uphold two major principles of environmental justice — treating all people fairly through non-discriminatory practices and involving the public in decision-making. To prevent another drinking-water crisis like that in Flint from occurring, Kolb emphasized the need to alter environmental regulations to ensure better public feedback and government transparency. The task force’s report praised citizens’ willingness to challenge and participate in the government, and Kolb said he hopes for similar community involvement in future decision-making.

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