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Resolving the Racism at the Heart of Flint's Water Crisis

A state task force report calls the water situation in the city an environmental injustice. What does that really mean?

Flint, Michigan, residents watch a live video feed as Michigan Governor Rick Snyder and EPA Administrator Gina McCarthy testify at a House Oversight and Government Reform hearing on Capitol Hill. (REUTERS/Kevin LaMarque)

Last week, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force delivered to Michigan Governor Rick Snyder its final report, a comprehensive treatise on what went wrong in the city’s water crisis and who deserves blame. Though The New York Times’ editorial board quickly called out the racism at the heart of the disaster, the task force ties itself up in knots parsing that particular conclusion in its report.

Indeed, the report’s executive summary notes up front that, “Given the demographics of Flint, the implications for environmental injustice cannot be ignored or dismissed.”

But without explaining what “environmental injustice” means, which the executive summary doesn't, the implications certainly can be ignored. This is not a term that the general public has much familiarity with. It’s not until page 58, halfway into the 116-page report, that the task force explains that “environmental injustice” refers to racism:

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 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 rest of the report is broken down into sections demarcated by the various levels of government implicated in the crisis: the Department of Environmental Quality, the governor’s office, the state-appointed emergency managers, Flint city officials, state and county health departments, and the water utilities. For each of these government entities, the task force lists recommendations for what each entity should do to rectify what they did wrong in Flint. Each section occupies multiple pages, with detailed background, discussion, and conclusions. The section on environmental justice and racism is barely one page long.  

For a more in-depth investigation into the role of racism in the Flint water crisis, we may have to wait until April 28, when Michigan’s Commission on Civil Rights will hold hearings on the environmental justice implications for the city. A spokesperson for the  commission said it was reserving further comment until those hearings conclude. The commission did release a statement to the public about the task force report. Said commission co-chair Arthur Horwitz:

[I]n issuing its final report, the Flint Water Advisory Task Force stated unequivocally that environmental injustice and the lack of any meaningful involvement for citizens in government decisions played a significant role in what happened in Flint. The Commission’s upcoming hearings in Flint will further explore these, and additional issues, with the intent of securing insights and contributing recommendations that assure the civil rights of Flint residents—and those in any Michigan community—are recognized and protected.

Peter Hammer, the Director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University in Detroit, is less impressed with the Flint task force’s findings.

“I think they deserve credit for being on right track and being braver than many other state critics in stating what the issues are, but they’re not directly taking on issues of race,” says Hammer. “They dance around ways of how structural racism have created the preconditions for municipal distress. What you have in southeast Michigan are poor, predominantly black, urban centers surrounded by white suburbs of fair degrees of wealth, and unless you confront those realities there are not going to be any long-term solutions for Flint or Detroit.”  

The one recommendation the task force offers to address environmental justice makes two asks:

Issue an Executive Order mandating guidance and training on Environmental Justice across all state agencies in Michigan, highlighting the Flint water crisis as an example of environmental injustice. The state should reinvigorate and update implementation of an Environmental Justice Plan for the State of Michigan.

The thing is, this executive order already exists. It was issued by former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm in November 2007, and it created the environmental justice plan referenced above. That plan, which was finalized in December 2010, does say that state agencies should be trained on environmental justice, using EPA guidelines as the template. A report issued in 1999, when Michigan first considered environmental justice practices, made similar recommendations.

The problem is not that the state needs an environmental justice plan, it’s that it never implemented the one it has had in the first place. If it did, many of the problems faced in Flint probably wouldn’t have happened, as Flint Mayor Karen Weaver acknowledged in a CityLab interview in January.

The Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition helped draft that 2010 plan, which it believes could have prevented the Flint water crisis. The coalition described how in a March 1 statement to the public about the plan’s functions:

The Plan would mandate the creation of an Interdepartmental Working Group, the use of environmental justice metrics, and increased public participation. The Working Group would have required MDEQ to cooperate with state departmental leaders from the Department to Civil Rights, the Department of Community Health, the Michigan State Housing Development Authority, and others, to come up with collaborative efforts to respond to the concerning reports from Flint. With environmental justice metrics in place, MDEQ could have measured the severity of the threats to public health, triggering an appropriate response. Increased public participation would have served as a vehicle for transparent communication between MDEQ and the people of Flint, helping to ensure that Flint voices would not be ignored or criticized, as unfortunately happened in this case.

This plan has been completely ignored by Snyder since he took office in 2011. And he continues to insist that what happened in Flint was not about racism.

Michigan Environmental Justice Coalition coordinator Jeremy Orr tells CityLab that it was a victory that the Flint task force mentioned environmental justice at all.

“We’ve been trying to get government officials to think about how to infuse environmental justice into the decision-making process for years, and we haven’t been able to so far,” says Orr. “So for Flint, which is inherently an environmental justice community, our coalition was surprised when we read the report because you don’t hear environmental justice mentioned in these circles. You hear every other word mentioned, but for the task force to come out and say, ‘This is an environmental justice issue, a race issue’—that says a lot.”

Mentioning these terms is one thing. Finding something actionable for government officials to do to account for the racism that led to the Flint water crisis is the next step. Of the report’s 44 recommendations, Snyder’s office says that it’s already begun adapting 25 of them. Ten of them have been referred to other organizations or agencies, and nine of them, including the one on environmental justice, are under review—meaning it’s up in the air whether they’ll be implemented or not.

To be fair, one of the recommendations Snyder has taken up has to do with the emergency manager law, to which the task force assigns considerable blame. The decision to switch Flint’s water source to the more corrosive Flint River was made by emergency managers—state-appointed officials sent to economically distressed cities with powers that trump those of mayors and city council officials. Flint’s emergency-manager regime essentially robbed residents of their voices in the policy-making process. This stabs directly at an essential environmental justice tenet: Allowing the public to have meaningful involvement in the governing decisions that will affect their lives.

However, of the three recommendations the task force offers about the state emergency law, Snyder has adopted only one—the one that says that emergency managers should have more support and expertise behind them when making decisions around public health and safety. Snyder placed the other two, which recommend a review of the emergency-manger law and consideration of alternative approaches to assisting economically distressed cities, under review.

Hammer says that neither the task force nor the governor are going far enough on the emergency manager law.  

“I would focus on the preconditions for municipal distress,” says Hammer. “The cities that have been stripped by emergency management and bankruptcy are really second-class cities [that lack] the same level of social services of other Michigan cities. So number one, repeal the emergency-manager law, which is responding to municipal distress by imposing dictators and removing democracy as opposed to providing resources to resource-starved areas.”

He also recommends that the state restructure its formula for sharing revenue among the cities. Flint’s share of state revenue has dwindled over the years, which many attribute as a key reason for why it was subjected to emergency management and a faulty water system to begin with. The fact that many of the cities that have been on the losing end of he state revenue-sharing in Michigan have large black populations only reinforces the idea that the Flint water crisis is centered on race. Which is why Hammer doesn’t believe the Snyder administration will follow through on the crucial environmental justice recommendations.

“The state will forget about Flint as soon as media attention turns away,” says Hammer. “Perhaps it will fulfill a few promises, like replacing lead pipes, but there’s no political will to really confront the political realities of structural racism in Flint, Michigan. And I’d say that’s true of most of America.”

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