by J. Mijin Cha, independent policy researcher and analyst; fellow, Cornell University Worker Institute; adjunct professor, Fordham University School of Law
As the crisis in Flint, Mich., further unfolds, the depths to which officials ignored warning signs and allowed the city’s residents to drink poisoned water are astonishing. Recently released emails show local and state officials knew what was happening much sooner than they let on and were more concerned with shifting blame than fixing the problem. As a result, months went by without residents knowing they were exposed to lead, a toxin that has no safe level of exposure and causes severe developmental and physical disabilities.
The majority of Flint residents are African American, and nearly 42 percent live in poverty. In contrast, just 14 percent of all residents in Michigan are African American, and the state’s poverty rate is less than half that of Flint. For decades, Flint residents have been exposed to a disproportionate amount of environmental pollution, so much so that residents have filed complaints with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) that the amount of pollution they are forced to bear violates their civil rights. The demographics of Flint combined with the city’s disproportionate environmental burden make it a classic case of environmental racism.
Environmental racism is the disproportionate placing of hazardous waste and polluting industries near communities of color. In addition to several previous studies that found race was the number one factor in the siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities, new research found that communities of color and low-income communities are deliberately targeted for hazardous waste siting. Led by researchers from the University of Michigan and the University of Montana, this study is the first national-level environmental justice study to conduct longitudinal analyses using distance-based methods. The results of the study confirm that race and class determine the siting of hazardous waste sites.
The residents of Flint are all too familiar with the role that race and class play in locating polluting industries. There are at least 227 environmentally noxious facilities throughout the community. Residents have been fighting against these facilities with little success for decades. In 1994, advocates in Flint filed a Title VI administrative complaint with the EPA against a nearby power plant in Genesee. The EPA, like every federal agency, must abide by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and ensure that recipients of federal aid do not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin.