Many people seemed to have forgotten the crisis at Flint, Michigan. In 2016 the city found out its water was a toxic threat to its citizens. Poisoned water was delivered to a city of 100,000 people for 18 months before the state recognized it as a problem.
While this has been cast aside by both the government and media for quite some time, it is finally heading for a resolution.
Indictment for Governor Rick Snyder
On Wednesday, January 13th, Governor Rick Snyder was charged for his role in the crisis. He is facing two counts of willful neglect of duty. If convicted he could face up to a year in prison and a $1,000 fine.
This is not a harsh enough punishment. Considering he let this go on for over a year, letting a dozen people die on his watch, I think a manslaughter charge seems more appropriate.
On Thursday, a federal judge granted approval for a $641 million class-action settlement in the case. It will provide each plaintiff (children, adults, property owners, and business owners) exposed legionella and other contaminants during the Flint water crisis with a monetary reward. It is only a partial settlement, therefore, this is not the end of the Flint water crisis.
Abuse of power
The Thursday ruling comes exactly a week after Snyder’s indictment. While we may think it solves the problem, the battle is hardly over. Nearly five years after, Snyder’s investigative commission cited the emergency manager law to oversee the water crisis. This law gives total political authority over a city of school restricted to appointed state officials.
They charged two of the four people who held positions on the commission with indictments. Defenders of this law claim it steered Detroit through its largest municipal bankruptcy. However, with another financial crisis looming this may not be the same according to Peter Hammer, Director of the Damon J. Keith Center for Civil Rights at Wayne State University Law School. The provisions have disproportionately affected the democratic rights of the black community.
Michigan is also one of two states that exempt both the governor and legislature from open records requests – this delays or denies access to critical information. This also results in preventing access to the decision on the Flint water crisis.
This is not the first indictment
While the EPA developed guidelines to test water at schools and child care centers, requiring inventories of lead service lines, inevitably they slow down the replacement of these lines. It requires a 3% replacement rate of water systems that show high levels of lead instead of its previous 7%. The EPA claims it closes loopholes, however, many environmentalists have become disappointed by this measure.
Even the steps taken to hold those accountable for their gross negligence are not being addressed properly. This is the second attempt to prosecute these officials. They threw the first away by a lead prosecutor who promised to “build a stronger case.”
However, it seemed like they wanted to protect their colleague from the charge they deserve. Defense lawyers even claim prosecutors have failed to make those cases so far.
Environmental racism is not new
This class-action lawsuit may be the biggest in the state’s history, but it may not result in much for the individuals suing. Some residents have protested the settlement saying it is not enough, and frankly, they are right. Environmental injustices are not new to the black community.
Long-standing racist policies and legislation prove to be a direct threat to these communities for climate change. In the United States alone, a disproportionate amount of communities of color live in areas polluted with toxic waste. Flint, Michigan’s population is 54% black, and this is not the only city that has been facing climate injustice.
In Louisiana’s river communities polluted by big oil create the “Cancer Alley”. Pahokee, Florida, a town with a 56% black community and 29% Latinx, has been battling the sugar industries which polluted Lake Okeechobee. This has not only threatened the state’s drinking water, but it has damaged property values and fish safety. Paper Mills have contaminated Africatown, Alabama, and Burlington Industries dumped cancer-causing PCBs in Cheraw, Alabama.
An Associated Press analysis showed 2 million people living within a mile of one of the 327 Superfund sites (heavily polluted locations), most are in low-income communities or communities of color. The EPA even estimated 1.5 people of color live in areas vulnerable to contamination.
How can this be rectified?
In response to the Flint water crisis, many residents belong to a program where they vet and carry out research proposals from academics. They have installed a water lab in a refurbished school so young people can take part and test their drinking water. This involves community organizing to rebuild their city.
While the citizens of Flint’s fight is far from, over they are working towards progress and rebuilding what they lost. The progress that is community-oriented giving a say to the predominantly black community that has been harmed by the tragedy.
How can the black community in particular finally have a say in environmental justice? As I discussed in my previous article, “The Problem With White Environmentalism” people like myself still have a massive influence on environmental justice. This may be a big reason no progress has been made.
Until we step back from this role, we continue to assume what the communities of color need and talk for them, rather than listen to them and allow them to speak for themselves. Providing communities of color a safe platform to voice their concerns and issue is the first step to a progressive movement in environmental justice.