The Contamination of Flint’s Water and the Environment Around You
Without a doubt, the Flint, Michigan water disaster is a catastrophic event that illustrates what happens when negligence, outdated infrastructure and lack of planning collide. Since the crisis came to light, people have rallied about the injustice, donated bottles of water and raised money to support the community. These things are commendable to keep the spotlight on a devastating situation; unfortunately, what’s happening in Flint isn’t shocking to many in the environmental community. Lest we forget that just two years ago there was a massive chemical spill in the Elk River in Charleston, West Virginia that contaminated the water supply for over 300,000 people or the Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill of 2010 which caused irreparable harm to the environment and poor communities across the gulf coast. These are the stories that make the news but poor and marginalized communities are bombarded daily with chronic polluting sources. According to a study published recently in Environmental Research Letters, industrial emitters subject poor communities to extreme amounts of pollution. Furthermore, the Environmental Health News article “Unequal exposures: People In poor, non-white neighborhoods breathe more hazardous particles” highlights air quality issues and associated health impacts that poor and minority communities are exposed to by industrial sources.
What is happening in Flint and other underserved communities across this country is exacerbated by compounding issues such as:
- Industrial contamination –The majority of industrial polluters are located near poor and marginalized communities. From a historical perspective, this is where land was cheaper and communities lacked political and economic capital to fend off polluters. In many cases, these are/were major sources of employment. Many of these industrial sources release contaminated discharges into the air, land, and nearby water bodies. Even if an industrial source has closed, legacy contaminants persist in the environment.
- Lack of investment in infrastructure– The Safe Drinking Water Act stopped the use of lead in pipes that carry drinking water in 1986 (30 years ago); however, pipes that have not been replaced since that time still have plumbing or plumbing components that contain lead. Lack of investment in upgrading these systems and not prioritizing them in the areas of greatest need is a real problem. In nearly every one of his State of the Union addresses, President Obama appealed for more investments in infrastructure. Roads, rail, and bridges are desperately in need of repair; however, buried infrastructure such as pipes must also be a part of the conversation. In fact, the 2013 American Society of Civil Engineers Infrastructure Report Card rated America’s drinking water infrastructure with a grade D.
- Inadequate sustainability planning– While many places are abuzz with “going green,” sustainability is more than changing light bulbs and turning off the water when you’re brushing your teeth. Sustainability includes properly planning for infrastructure improvement and/or replacement as well as reducing and cleaning up pollution. In the midst of the Flint crisis, many people have demanded the pipes be replaced immediately (rightfully so) but proper planning and design can mitigate what can be an engineering nightmare . For communities that are resource strapped, adequate planning is a luxury item so they remain stuck in the need phase until disaster strikes.
- Technology– The need for robust technology and access to information is intensified in the midst of a crisis but many poor communities lack the digital tools. In Flint, the data which would help pinpoint homes and pipes that were most at risk was contained on 45,000 index cards. Maps hadn’t been digitized. Having this information readily available electronically could dramatically increase response time. Less sophisticated communities need assistance to bridge the digital divide.
- Political Will and Social Inclusion– Public Safety, unemployment, and poverty often dominate the conversation in poor and marginalized communities; however, the capital improvement plan, emergency management and pollution prevention plans have to be just as important. Investments in infrastructure can help decrease unemployment and create a skilled workforce. It’s critically important to make sure underserved communities are prioritized when funds flow instead of only those with a high tax base. There has to be political will at every stage of government to ensure environmental justice regardless of socioeconomic status. Moreover, social inclusion is important to ensure equitable access to resources.
Back in Flint, water bottles, filters, and volunteers help residents but are only a Band-Aid on a 3rd degree burn. The damage goes much deeper and calls for both immediate action and long term investments in infrastructure. It also calls for funding to assist residents to make the needed pipe replacements in their homes. Water is the source of life for humans. Such a basic human need should be safely available regardless of socioeconomic status. Alas, environmental justice is just one piece in the systematic cycle of poverty and oppression that faces current and future generations of Americans in historically disenfranchised communities. However, environmental issues, though mostly unseen by the naked eye, directly impact public health and safety of residents. Investments in such infrastructure could mean jobs for residents and a lasting positive step for marginalized communities. Furthermore, government accountability, technology upgrades, investment of time and resources and genuine concern for humanity must be prioritized to protect this country’s most vulnerable populations.
Be Informed: Do you want to find out more about what’s happening in your neighborhood? The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) annually publishes the Toxics Release Inventory (TRI) which contains information on industrial chemical releases to air, land and water dating back to 1987. Although this information is self reported by the company, it’s a great tool to understand what’s happening in your community. Access the TRI database by clicking here.
Chanceé Lundy Russell is the Co-Founder of Nspiregreen LLC an environmental consulting, urban planning and public engagement firm based in Washington, DC. The Selma, Alabama native received her BS in Environmental Science from Alabama A&M University and her MS in Civil Engineering from Florida State University. She is passionate about environmental justice issues and works to create healthy, livable communities for all.