The Flint water crisis. What is environmental justice?

Last week a special commission appointed Michigan Governor Rick Snyder released a report on the Flint water crisis that contained this conclusion:

The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice. Flint residents, who are majority Black or African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities. Moreover, by virtue of their being subject to emergency management, Flint residents were not provided equal access to, and meaningful involvement in, the government decision-making process.

The commission has a brief discussion on what they mean by environmental injustice

Environmental injustice is not about malevolent intent or deliberate attacks on specific populations, nor does it come in measures that overtly violate civil rights. Environmental injustices as often occur when parties charged with the responsibility to protect public health fail to do so in the context of environmental considerations.

The commission was clearly being political with this statement, and stopped just short of saying that the state government and emergency manager that Snyder appointed showed a blatant disregard for the health of the residents of Flint because they are poor and black.  And, it is hard to ignore the feeling that if the residents of Flint had been white and  more affluent, state government would have been more responsive.  You could make the case that if the population of Flint had been more affluent, there wouldn’t have been water crisis in the first place, that there wouldn’t have been an emergency manager with such wide ranging powers.   Detroit Congressman John Conyers wrote an editorial in The Nation in which he details the abuses, mismanagement, and lack of accountability that the law not only allows, but encourages.

The Michigan Department of Treasury’s own internal analysis highlighted the law’s overreach, concluding: “This bill allows emergency managers too much power and control over local units of government. Emergency managers can’t be trusted to act in the interests of the local unit and will use the enhanced powers granted under this bill for their own gain.”…

Numerous instances of abuse, conflict of interest, and mismanagement by EMs came to light. In Pontiac, EMs incurred a potential loss of $1.4 million in US Department of Housing and Urban Development funding due to mismanagement of grants. EM Michael Stampfler outsourced the city’s wastewater treatment to United Water shortly after the firm faced a 26-count indictment in Indiana for violating the Clean Water Act. In Highland Park, the EM had previously been terminated for making more than $200,000 in unauthorized payments to himself.

Snyder and company clearly didn’t believe that the minority communities in these cities could be trusted to make their own decisions.  The voters of Michigan overturned the law, but Snyder and the Republican led legislature put it back using techniques to make it invulnerable to being overturned.  They then put the same emergency managers with sweeping powers back in place.  The result was almost predictable. As Conyers says “the real question isn’t how the disasters in Flint and the Detroit public schools could have happened, but how many other state-made catastrophes are looming.”

Of course, environmental injustice is nothing new.  The National Resources Defense Council has a great article detailing the history of environmental racism and the beginning of the environmental justice movement.   There is a long history of placing toxic dumps in areas that are poor and/or minority.

No one wants a factory, a landfill or a diesel bus garage for a neighbor. But corporate decision makers, regulatory agencies and local planning and zoning boards had learned that it was easier to site such facilities in low-income African-American or Latino communities than in primarily white, middle-to-upper-income communities. Poor communities and communities of color usually lacked connections to decision makers on zoning boards or city councils that could protect their interests. Often they could not afford to hire the technical and legal expertise they’d need to fight a siting. They often lacked access to information about how their new “neighbor’s” pollution would affect people’s health.

NRDC and other mainstream environmental groups provide resources and support to environmental groups, and if you think about it, that only makes sense.  The truth is that “out of site, out of mind” can only work for so long.  Pollution and toxins do not stay localized, they leach into water systems, get released into the atmosphere and end up affecting us all.  Porter Ranch is wealthy neighborhood,  but the Aliso Canyon gas leak forced them from their homes 

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