Commentary: The deeper meaning of Flint

The water crisis in the struggling Michigan city may be a symptom of an intractable disease: environmental racism

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 Updated:

Vehicles make their way through downtown Flint, Mich., Thursday, Jan. 21, 2016. Residents in the former auto-making hub — a poor, largely minority city — feel their complaints about lead-tainted water flowing through their taps have been slighted by the government or ignored altogether.

Paul Sancya/AP

What began as a tainted-water story out of Flint, Michigan, has blown up into a much broader discussion of environmental justice in the United States: Did Gov. Rick Snyder and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency play down the risks of a money-driven switch from lake to more corrosive river water because Flint has a disproportionate number of poor and African-American residents? Did they minimize residents’ complaints about high levels of brain-damaging lead in their water, released by aging pipes, for the same reason?

Snyder has apologized profusely, and the EPA’s regional administrator in Chicago has resigned. It’s fair to ask, however, whether something deeper is at work here: Is environmental racism so entrenched in this country that public health crises like Flint are inevitable?

That’s a question the Center for Public Integrity posed last year in “Environmental Justice, Denied,” an investigative series done in conjunction with NBC News. What we found was not encouraging. 

The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights, we learned, has never made a formal finding of environmental discrimination in its 22-year history, although it has the power to do so under Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Our reporters reviewed thousands of pages of documents and concluded that the office has either rejected outright or dismissed after investigation complaints from communities such as Uniontown, Alabama, and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Advocates and residents of these communities say the EPA has been abiding by an unreasonably narrow definition of discrimination that has kept if from finding in complainants’ favor. The agency was set on this path by a case out of … Flint.

In today’s edition of The Hill, J. Mijin Cha, a fellow at Cornell University’s Worker Institute, writes, “The current environmental crisis in Flint was caused by failure at many levels of government, including the EPA's Office of Civil Rights. Any solution must include an overhaul and new mandate for Title VI complaints. It's time for the EPA to step up and enforce its duty to protect communities of color.”

The EPA has promised to make “wholesale” changes in its civil-rights office. Whether those changes go far enough remains to be seen.

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