Flint, Michigan is all over the news. We’ve seen photos of brown, lead-filled water bottles, listened to heartbreaking stories of children with permanent brain damage, and heard public figures like Michael Moore speaking out against the epic travesty that this tragic event has and continues to cause. We’ve heard the words “environmental racism” repeatedly.
“Flint’s water crisis became one of the worst cases of environmental racism in modern American history.” -Daily News by Shaun King
Flint is a predominantly black city of nearly 10,000 residents located on the Flint River 60 miles from Detroit. It is the fourth largest metropolitan area in Michigan with a population of 425,000. In the mid-2000s Flint gained negative press for high crime rates, and from 2011-2015 was in financial crisis for the second time this decade.
Some history: “The Flint emergency manager decides, in April, 2014, to save some money by ending the city’s contract to buy water from Detroit, switching for its supply to the Flint River. The Flint River is famously filthy, and residents’ tap water turns smelly and brown and tastes weird. Complaints are ignored.” –The New Yorker 2/4 by William Finnegan
“Children, with their rapidly developing brains and nervous systems, are particularly vulnerable to lead. Exposure can cause stunted growth, permanent mental retardation, speech impairment, hearing loss, reproductive problems, and kidney damage.”
Environmental Racism: the disproportionate exposure of environmental hazards like power plants, toxic waste, and urban decay in close proximity to low income and minority communities.
It’s not a new concept. In fact, the civil rights and environmental justice movements have been linked since the 1960’s. The first environmental justice case ever filed was Bean vs. Southwestern Waste Management Corporation in 1979 (source: eoearth.org). A largely African American community in Houston, TX cited in that year that placement of a waste dump in their neighborhood violated their civil rights. They lost the case, but made history in bringing to light the connection between environmental hazards and lower income, largely minority areas.
Since 1979, environmental organizations have been researching the close connection between civil rights and environmentalism. The results of these studies are shocking. Some vocabulary you should understand before we go deeper:
- A vulnerability zone is defined by the EPA as the maximum possible area where people could be harmed by a worst case release of toxins or flammable chemicals
- A fenceline zone is one-tenth of the area of the vulnerability zone. So if the vulnerability zone is 10 miles around a toxic waste facility, the fenceline zone would be the mile closest to the facility, where people are virtually unable to escape if something happens.
According to a 2006 report by comingcleaninc.org, the percentage of black individuals living within fenceline zones is 75% greater than for the United States as a whole. For Hispanics, it is 60% greater. Three out of five African Americans live in areas with uncontrolled toxic waste sites (source: US GAO).
So how does this all tie in with Flint? Forty percent of the population of Flint, Michigan live below the poverty line. Fifty-six percent are black (source: U.S. Census Bureau). The city’s governor claims the issue is not related to race, and yet, the population we see suffering most is primarily lower-income, minority citizens. What’s more, due to the state’s fiscal crisis, they are unable to elect their own governor. Rick Snyder was simply appointed as the city’s governor, and then allowed local Emergency Financial Managers to switch the city’s water from a clean source to the water in Flint River.
As early as March 2015, it was known that the water contained E.Coli and carcinogens. Lead levels were found to be 16 times the allowed limit, and the number of children testing positively in the city for lead poisoning doubled within a year (source: theroot.com). The city did nothing with this information until the case was brought to light. Why? Maybe because they believed the largely minority city did not have the power to fight back, or maybe because they didn’t care about the lives and health of impoverished citizens. Children, with their rapidly developing brains and nervous systems, are particularly vulnerable to lead. Exposure can cause stunted growth, permanent mental retardation, speech impairment, hearing loss, reproductive problems, and kidney damage. The New Yorker 2/4
What we need to remember as we go forward is that environmental safety and justice are more than just a privilege for the rich. They are human rights. Clean, drinkable water is a human right.
The most important thing we as citizens can do is not turn a blind eye. Don’t forget that this happened. Assess your own neighborhoods and communities. Be vigilant. Are the same types of environmental injustices visible. If they are, take action. Write to your congress members, your governors, and mayors. Protest Governor Rick Snyder’s actions. Refuse to be a part of the system that allows tragedies like the Flint water crisis to take place. Speak up and speak loudly. Protect the health and well-being of our children, our future and our planet.
Reilly Reynolds is a senior at Ohio Wesleyan University, studying Economics and Spanish. She hopes to go into urban farming when she graduates, and eventually own a farm-to-table organic restaurant.