Flint, MI: A Clear Case of Environmental Injustice

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An independent panel appointed last October by Michigan Governor Rick Synder to investigate why things went so wrong in Flint released its findings last week. The Flint Water Advisory Task Force report blasted the state’s handling of the crisis and painted a picture of “government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice.”

While there was plenty of blame to go around, the five member panel singled out the state-appointed emergency managers who were trying to save money, the state departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services for their role in handling Flint’s water issues, and Snyder and his staff for their lack of oversight. According to the report, “Neither the governor nor the governor’s office took steps to reverse poor decisions by MDEQ and state-appointed emergency managers until October 2015, in spite of mounting problems and suggestions to do so by senior staff members in the governor’s office, in part because of continued reassurances from MDEQ that the water was safe.”

The report also concluded that, “The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice.” The New York Times reported that the panel’s report “put a spotlight on a long-running civil rights issue: whether minorities and the poor are treated differently when it comes to environmental matters, relegating them to some of the most dangerous places in the country: flood prone areas of New Orleans that were devastated after Hurricane Katrina; highly polluted parts of Detroit and the Bronx; and ‘Cancer Alley’ in Louisiana, where residents who live near factories suffer disproportionately from disease.”

According to the Times story, the report concluded that “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.”

The Task Force also singled out the activism of local residents and credited the “critical role played by engaged Flint citizens, by individuals both inside and outside of government who had the expertise and willingness to question and challenge government leadership,” along with “members of a free press who used the tools that enable investigative journalism.”

The Task Force report does a good job of unpacking the numerous failures especially at the state level that led to the crisis in Flint and how things got so out of control. But what underlies everything is the patented disregard for the people who live in this predominately African American city. The case for environmental injustice was never so clear.

Read the full 116-page report of the Flint Water Advisory Task Force and its 44 recommendations here