More than their fair share–environmental inequality

by | Mar 22, 2017 | News

Last month we watched the  Trump Administration disregard the voices of the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe concerning the completion of the Dakota Access Pipeline, which will place their primary water source, Lake Oahe, at risk of oil contamination. The decision of the Army Corps of Engineers to issue the easement is deplorable, considering that an alternate crossing north of the city of Bismarck, North Dakota was not chosen, in part, due to the unreasonable risk to drinking water sources for the predominantly white community there.

Time and again, communities of color are unfairly and inequitably exposed to environmental hazards. Time and again, they are denied meaningful access to the benefits of clean air, water and a healthy environment. The situation at Standing Rock is just one of the most recent examples. Flint, Michigan is another community that has been devastated by receiving more than their fair share of public health hazards — in this case, the element of lead.

Levels of exposure

Image Credit: Ben Gordon CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Caption: Flint, Michigan water tower

Image Credit: Ben Gordon CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Flint, Michigan water tower

In April 2014, in an effort to reduce the cost of delivering water to the residents of Flint, the city began using the Flint River as the municipal water source. Soon after, boil orders to control bacteria were issued and sanitizer levels were increased. Residents complained that the water was discolored, smelled bad and gave them rashes. General Motors found the water so corrosive they could not use it in their auto parts factory.

In January 2015, residents of Flint were notified that unsafe levels of chemicals were present in the water, and tests of fountains and faucets began to show lead in the water. Over the next eight months, various agencies and experts performed tests and the results were extremely alarming. The federal limit for lead levels in drinking water is 15 parts per billion, yet one home’s water tested at 347 parts per billion of lead.

In September 2015, Marc Edwards, a leading expert on municipal water quality, reported that the corrosiveness of the river water was causing lead to leach from plumbing in the city into the drinking water. Later that month, doctors in Flint reported that they were finding high levels of lead in children’s blood.

Finally, in October 2015 residents were warned not to use the water for drinking, cooking or bathing and the distribution of water filters began. In December the city declared a state of emergency, followed by Governor Snyder declaring a state of emergency for Genesee County. President Obama declared a state of emergency in January 2016, making $5 million in FEMA aid available. The Michigan State House also approved $28 million in aid to the city.


More than their fair share

Caption: Infographic describing demographics of Flint, Michigan

Infographic describing demographics of Flint, Michigan

Census data shows that Flint’s 99,000 residents are 56% black, 36% white, 4% Latino and 4% mixed race. More than 37% of the residents live below the poverty level. 27% of the residents are children under 18. In January 2016, news reports indicated that many of the Spanish speaking residents of the city were still unaware of the unsafe lead levels. Another issue was that residents had to show identification to access free bottled water and home water filters, before the state lifted that requirement. Even after the restriction was lifted, residents were confused about the identification requirement and wary of sharing their information with authorities.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s testing showed that children were 50% more likely to have elevated levels of lead in their blood after the switch to Flint River water. Children with elevated blood lead levels may have long lasting or permanent neurological effects such as lower IQ, problems with balance, behavior problems or even encephalopathy in serious cases. Children who were exposed to the high levels of lead in the water will likely require services for many years.


Meet families who were impacted

Nakiya Wakes was pregnant in 2015 but unfortunately suffered a miscarriage of both of her twins after drinking the tainted water. She also worries about the impacts of the water on her son and daughter who both showed elevated lead levels when their blood was tested.

For this family, leaving Flint during the water crisis wasn’t easy

A year ago, Flint Mayor Karen Weaver declared a state of emergency in the city. Now, officials say the water is improving, but it’s still not safe to drink without a filter. The water crisis has forced some people to make tough choices.

The Banks family had roots in Flint, but when they started noticing their children’s health being impacted by the water crisis they looked for ways to move their family. They were able to move to Ann Arbor when Charles was accepted into grad school at the University of Michigan.

Children of Flint: Inheriting anxiety, giving up hope

“This water is poison,” she says, without skipping a beat. “If I drink it, I going to die and I don’t want to die. Nobody want to die.”

Children in Flint are acutely aware that their water is not safe to drink and could have permanent harmful effects on their health.

Image credit: USDA  Caption: Sign directing drivers to a water pickup location

Image credit: USDA Sign directing drivers to a water pickup location

Image credit: USDA
Caption: Sign directing drivers to a water pickup location

The aftermath

Populations at risk for the detrimental effects of harmful environmental phenomena are often the same populations that are at most risk in other exploitative situations — children, people living in poverty, immigrants and people of color. Even a year after federal aid was made available to Flint residents, the situation is still not resolved.

Learn more

If you would like to learn more and take action to help resolve environmental and social justice issues, please visit these websites:

  1. The Natural Resources Defense Council

NRDC works to safeguard the earth—its people, its plants and animals, and the natural systems on which all life depends. Due to the Trump Administration’s unrelenting assault on the environment, NRDC has launched a special project called the Trump Watch.

  1. Earthjustice

Earthjustice takes on major precedent-setting environmental justice cases across the country, including the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe’s fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline.

  1. The Children’s Environmental Health Network

The Children’s Environmental Health Network is a national multidisciplinary organization whose mission is to protect the developing child from environmental health hazards and promote a healthier environment.

Jacqui Viale is an educator living in Long Beach, California with her husband and two children. She is a vocal advocate for public education and women’s and girl’s rights. She holds a Master’s in Educational Administration from California State University, Long Beach.