Flint Opened Our Eyes to How Bad Environmental Injustice Can Be
Environmental Injustice: It’s Happening
LeeAnne Walters is still fighting to make sure the residents of Flint, Michigan, have clean water. Flint opened our eyes to how bad environmental injustice can be; and if it happened there, it can happen anywhere. In fact, it is happening.
Flint’s Water Crisis
Flint’s water crisis began in 2014 when the city switched to a new water source. The new source, river water, was not properly treated as required by federal law. The result was that chloride in the water made iron water mains rust. The lead pipes corroded, and the lead infiltrated the water in high doses. Unknowingly, residents consumed the contaminated water, and many became sick – real sick. Lead poisoning causes long-term mental and physical health issues. Now, after four years, Flint is in the process of replacing all of its lead pipes.
Thanks to people like mother and activist, LeeAnne Walters, the focus on guaranteeing clean water to Flint and other communities throughout the United States is gaining more attention. For more on the story of Flint’s ongoing battle to get clean water, read Adele Peters’ article in Fast Company (May 1), “This Activist Is Still Fighting To Get Flint Clean Water.”
I was Angry and Sad
When I read Peters’ article this week, my emotions ran high. While I had read about the crisis in Flint more than two years ago, I admit I didn’t know the full story. I was angry and sad for the innocent Flint residents who trusted their government to keep them safe. And, the government officials, who have worked hard to rebound the city from bankruptcy, made a deleterious decision that is now costing people their lives. Once the officials knew, they did not act quickly to stop the poisoning of their people. That’s irresponsible and criminal.
The story of Flint’s water crisis is sad any way you look at it. But what’s even sadder is Flint is not the only city in this predicament. According to Peters, there are “Between 15 and 22 million people” who live in homes connected to lead service lines. Walters is on a mission to help save other communities from becoming Flint. She, along with Marc Edwards, a civil and environmental engineering professor at Virginia Tech, is working to ensure people can test their drinking water.
Pollution is also Segregated: Where are You Most Likely to Find Landfills?
Reading about Flint got me to thinking about landfills and the danger they pose to residents. Sadly, I found most landfills are located nearest poor communities and in communities of color. Yes, as one headline put it, pollution is also segregated. I’m not suggesting that all hazardous waste facilities should be relocated to affluent areas. No one area should be put at risk over another. However, I am curious how the decision gets made to locate landfills and waste treatment plants disproportionately where poor people and people of color live. In a Quartz article (March 2017), author Zoë Schlanger writes,
“Go looking for the local landfill or toxic waste treatment facility in any US county with a mostly white population, and you’ll likely find it in the black or Latino neighborhoods. That’s because in the US, your race is the single biggest factor that determines whether you live near a hazardous waste facility.”
Come to think of it, I remember a waste treatment plant not too far from the home where I grew up. In a black neighborhood where the middle class and poor families lived. Certainly not in the neighborhoods on the other side of town where the town’s white residents lived.
Environmental Injustice is Not New and It’s Mostly Unchanged
Environmental injustice is not new. When I Googled the topic, there was plenty there. I encourage you to do a search. You will find several articles. Here are just a few that I found:
- This Landfill is Your Landfill: Race is the biggest indicator in the US of whether you live near toxic waste by Zoë Schlanger, Quartz, March 2017
- Environmental Justice: Income, Race, and Health by Rachel Massey, Global Development and Environment Institute, Tufts University, 2004
- Pollution is Segregated Too by Emily Badger, The Washington Post, April 2014
- If You’re a Minority and Poor, You’re More Likely to Live Near a Toxic Waste Site by Erik Sherman, Fortune Magazine, February 2016
- Pollution, Poverty, and People of Color: Living with Industry by Jane Kay, Scientific American, June 2012
There are Health Costs to Pay
Each article sounds like a broken record. The main message is the same. If you are a person of color or if you are poor, you are more likely to live near a landfill or hazardous waste facility than if you are white and not poor. That is worrisome because as we found out with the Flint residents, there is a price to pay in terms of health when residents ingest contaminated water. For the poor and people of color living near the waste treatment facilities or plants where industry fumes are a part of every inhalation, there is a health cost to pay. And, these are the people most likely not to be able to afford healthcare. Furthermore, with the Trump administration’s policies easing environmental regulations and limiting cases of environmental injustice, there is little support for claims when things do go wrong.
Where are Race and Class Not Controlling in the United States?
So, what can we do? If you’re like me, this article and the others cited above can be depressing. But they are necessary. I know when I read the articles, I admit, I wondered where are race and class not controlling in the United States? Where can I find any glimmer of a colorblind society? When is it that we do not further disadvantage those who already have extraordinary needs? Where is our sense of fairness?
I resolve that these legacy decisions that historically have put a greater burden on people of color and the poor must be exposed and challenged if they are to change. Even the articles I reference above span years. It tells me that this issue, while known, is not being addressed – just like the issue in Flint went unabated for several months, if not years, before the government was forced to act.
Five Things We Can Do to Create Environmentally Safe Communities for All People
This is why The Social Scholar exists. The tagline is “when we know better, we do better.” So, now that we know, we must take an active role in creating environmentally safe communities for all people. Call municipal, state, and nationally elected officials into accountability for the decisions they make that negatively impact one population disproportionately more than another.
Here are five things you can do today to make a difference:
- Get informed and stay informed about local, state, and national environmental policies
- Research your town’s water filtering and purification process.
- Test your water quality and advocate for all residents to have the ability to test their water
- Attend city government meetings and when you’re able to, request a discussion on environmental injustice, harmful emissions controls, or the city’s plans to keep residents safe from contaminated soil and water supplies
- Elect politicians who are pro-environment (clean water, clean energy, higher EPA standards for business)
Any of these actions is a step in the right direction and can make a difference. If you are more knowledgeable about this topic and know what other relevant actions we can take, please share with The Social Scholar community. Our goal is to make a positive impact in our communities, our nation, and the world.
When we know better, we do better.
© 2018, Tonya Harris Cornileus, Ph.D.
All Rights Reserved.