A wave of progressive candidates has taken 2018 by storm, surging to victory in primaries around the country. In addition to issues like affordable health care, labor rights, and immigration, many among the new crop of would-be lawmakers have emphasized environmental issues, speaking to the intersections of pressing problems like pollution and climate change with social injustices.
Among those new faces is Democratic candidate Rashida Tlaib, who is running to replace Rep. John Conyers (D) in Detroit’s 13th district. Tlaib has made a name for herself in the state, serving for five years in Michigan’s House of Representatives, where she championed environmental issues and fought the conservative Koch brothers over the petroleum coke pollution, or petcoke, that has plagued Detroit.
After winning a tight primary earlier this month, Tlaib is running unopposed in November’s general election, after which point she will likely be the first Palestinian woman in Congress, as well as the first Muslim woman, a distinction she’s set to share with Minnesota’s Ilhan Omar.
Tlaib will bring a radical platform centered around environmental justice to Washington. In an interview with ThinkProgress, she articulated her green vision for Michigan, her thoughts on the state’s enduring water problems, and her stance on the controversial Enbridge Line 5 pipeline.
I grew up in the most polluted zip code in the state, and I just thought the industrial smell was normal.
Tlaib also addressed recent legislation giving industry figures input in environmental regulations in Michigan, a move that has been heavily panned by green groups. And she spoke about her vision for a “green new deal” that would bring sustainable jobs to cities like Detroit.
What do you see as being the most critical environmental issue(s) in Michigan?
One of the most critical issues to take on is water quality and access. Not only are we seeing across the state that municipal water systems have unsafe levels of pollutants in them and that beaches across the state have been closed due to PFAS and other contaminants, but we’re also seeing poor people lose access to water in Detroit, while Nestle pays pennies to pump millions of gallons of water out of our state. I’ll do everything I can to ensure the Clean Water Act is enforced here in Michigan, and I’ll work to ensure everyone in Michigan has access to safe, affordable water, regardless of where they live.
We’re not going to be able to make these changes and protect our environment while corporations still write their own rules, so we need to fight back against the evisceration of the EPA [Environmental Protection Agency] and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ). That means standing up to these corporate polluters, rejecting their campaign money, and holding them accountable. Taking on corporate greed is an environmental concern.
Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder (R) signed two bills into law in June that opponents have argued will give industry members some oversight over the MDEQ. Will you do anything to address or highlight this issue of so-called “polluter panels”?
I made a big deal out of these fox-in-the-henhouse bills during the campaign, railing against this blatant giveaway to corporate polluters, at a time when the MDEQ has shown it’s already in the pocket of big business. I’ll continue to highlight through social media how giving environmental oversight power to polluters puts us all in danger, and I’ll encourage my allies in the Michigan Legislature to take action to reverse these polluter panels.
Do you see water issues in areas like Detroit and Flint as being connected to similar trends around the state?
There’s no doubt that corporations have been getting away with dumping their pollution into our environment for decades, and that they’re especially emboldened to pollute in low-income communities, and typically low-income communities of color.
I grew up in the most polluted zip code in the state, and I just thought the industrial smell was normal — it’s no coincidence the people living with the most pollution are the ones who have been most shut out of political power in this state.
We need to continue building our community coalitions and turning normal folks into environmental activists in their neighborhoods, and we need to keep rising up and telling these corporations and the politicians who serve them that we’ve had enough and they’re not going to treat our communities as their dumping grounds.
We’ve been successful in standing up to Marathon Oil and the Koch brothers here in Detroit, and we’re going to keep standing up every time they try to take advantage of us.
What is your stance on the Enbridge Line 5 pipeline — which runs under the Great Lakes, bringing oil from Canada into the United States — the risks it poses, and what should be done about it?
I support shutting down Line 5. The risks are far too great to bear, as the recent pipeline damage scare demonstrated. Enbridge spends thousands wining and dining Michigan politicians but they aren’t donating to my campaign, and I won’t fall for schemes to just keep burying the pipeline deeper or encasing it in another pipeline.
The fact remains that the Great Lakes are too important to this state and to this country to run the risks of a catastrophic oil spill, which is increasingly likely for this old, deteriorating pipeline.
The auto industry played a huge role in creating jobs in Michigan for years. Some have floated the idea of a “green jobs plan” — is that something you support?
I support a green new deal to put people to work building a renewable green energy infrastructure that can help us fight climate change and protect our communities. The automakers in Michigan are making strides to build cleaner cars, and it’s encouraging that increasingly these high-tech projects are happening right here in Metro Detroit.
The focus of the campaign is Michigan, but there’s a larger, national conversation playing out about environmental issues under the Trump administration. Do you have thoughts about where Michigan fits into that national dialogue?
So many of the national environmental crises are playing out right here in Michigan — natural resource exploitation, water quality and access, contaminated soil and dumping, environmental racism, the list goes on.
The fights playing out right here should be a lesson for the rest of the country, and likewise we need to look to other places to see how they’re fighting for the environment and learn the lessons we can.
This state has such a strong tradition of environmental conservation and protection and our lakes, rivers, and forests are a part of who we are here, and I’m hopeful that people will stand up and fight to keep our environment pristine for generations to come. People need to understand that we need strong governmental agencies willing to stand up to greedy corporations in order to protect the wild lands they’ve come to love and share with their families like an inheritance.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.