Evoking the contaminated-water crisis in Flint, Michigan, the U.S. Commission on Civil Rights showed concern and compassion Friday for residents of polluted communities who maintain they are victims of environmental racism.
“I see the specter of Flint in the communities that are represented by our panelists,” Patricia Timmons-Goodson, vice chair of the commission, said via teleconference at a hearing that focused on the dumping of coal ash. “In your communities, like Flint, there is knowledge of the dire health consequences of many of these toxic products.”
Flint’s nearly 100,000 residents have been exposed to elevated levels of lead after water from the Flint River corroded the city’s pipes. Some residents complained about the tainted water for two years before elected officials and regulators were compelled to act.
“Poor communities become saddled with decisions made by policy makers, politicians and others who frequently take the past of least resistance – that’s with the politically un-empowered, those who have the least access to the justice system and to the ballot box,” Commissioner Michael Yaki said via teleconference.
Residents of Waukegan, Illinois; Uniontown, Alabama; and Florence, South Carolina, told the commission they were worried about leakage from coal ash pits and landfills. Coal ash is a byproduct of coal-fired power generation and contains harmful metals including arsenic, chromium, lead and mercury.
Dulce Ortiz, who lives near a coal-fired power plant in Waukegan, said she feels her concerns are being ignored by state and federal officials.
“How are companies allowed to do this in my community time and time again?” she asked.
A Center for Public Integrity investigation last year examined how the Environmental Protection Agency’s Office of Civil Rights handles discrimination complaints from communities. The Center found that the office has dismissed nine out of every 10 claims and has never once issued a formal finding of a civil-rights violation.