Overview of the Flint Water Crisis

3985 words (16 pages) Essay in Environmental Studies

08/02/20 Environmental Studies Reference this

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What is the issue?

The Flint water crisis is one of the leading cases of environmental injustice impacting one of the nations poorest communities. Flint, Michigan is a perfect example of a disadvantaged community, consisting of mainly Black and African American individuals, who have become victims of their own country. This disaster began in 2014, as Flint city officials made the decision to switch the public water supply from Lake Huron to the Flint River causing lead-contaminated drinking water exposure ((Campbell, C., Greenberg, R., Mankikar, D., & Ross, R. D. (2016)). The water supply in Flint poisoned thousands of families and children resulting in elevated blood lead levels (BLL) and cases Legionnaire’s disease. Water quality tests were inaccurately conducted by the Environmental Protection Agency and other members of the system. Delayed and ineffective responses by elected officials extended the time period which the community endured contaminated water without any notice. This case of environmental injustice is a result of government officials at the state, local, and federal level who have failed to abide by the law. The lack of responsibility and denial officials have towards the Flint epidemic has brought awareness to the cases of environmental racism and injustice that are sadly still occurring across the country today. The complexity to the root of the problem has shared responsibility in the failure to correspond to regulations put in place by Environmental Protection Agencies. 

The lives of many were put at risk in Flint due to the poor water quality causing elevated blood lead levels and cases of Legionnaire’s disease. Between the time frame, the water was falsely claimed as safe (April 2014 through December 2015) eighty-seven residents contracted this illness deadly form of pneumonia and 12 of them lost their lives. (Diep, 2018). Tens of thousands of individuals have been exposed to lead and the development of a registry to help identify and enroll individuals of the Flint community according their blood lead levels. According to Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha, director of the Pediatric Residency Program at Hurley Medical Center,  about 140,000 children and adults are eligible to enroll in Flint’s Registry (Higgins, L. 2018). 

Legal action has been taken against city officials, as 15 individuals have been charged with direct connections to the Flint water crisis. Five state and city officials were charged including former Flint emergency manager Darnell Earley, state health department official Dr. Eden Wells, and Nick Lyon Michigan health director in this event (Ganim, 2017). Several other class action lawsuits have erupted against the State of Michigan and other members of agencies but little has been done to fix the root of why this event occurred. The problem lies in our government systems ability to monitor non-white communities equally and effectively make decisions that value the quality of life over the economic value and political relationships. The unequal treatment and protection of basic human right laws in primarily non-white communities result in cases of environmental injustice. The inequality and discriminatory actions made towards minority communities suggest the fragile state of our country’s democracy.

What’s the Background?

The Fundamentals of the Environmental Justice Movement

The Environmental Justice Movement evolved alongside the Civil Rights Movement and fought to establish critical forms of legislation that monitor discrimination and environmental injustice cases. The environmental justice movement has allowed for awareness and establishment of environmental laws that work to provide all citizens with protection against environmental burdens that may negatively impact one’s quality of life. In 1991, the Delegates of First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit established the 17 Environmental Principles that represent the fundamental values of this movement (Principles of Environmental Justice). These policies, unfortunately, are not implemented at the same rate in disadvantaged communities.

Case of Environmental Injustice

In the United States, disadvantaged communities are subjected to environmental discrimination and inequalities that put these individuals lives at risk every day. Every individual has the right to live an environmentally safe community and have access to basic necessities despite their race, gender, socioeconomic status, and ethnicity. Environmental injustice is described as disproportionate burdens in communities of low socioeconomic status and racial minorities that negatively impact their overall health and quality of life. The Environmental Protection Agency defines this concept:

Environmental justice is the fair treatment and meaningful involvement of all people regardless of race, color, national origin, or income, with respect to the development, implementation, and enforcement of environmental laws, regulations, and policies. (US EPA. (2017).

Demographics of Flint, Michigan

The city of Flint, Michigan is made up 54% Black or African American individuals and according to the United States Census Bureau, 41.9% of people live in poverty (U.S. Census Bureau QuickFacts, 2017). The demographics of this city reveal that Flint is considered to be a disadvantaged community which plays a significant role in the water crisis epidemic that occurred.

Events Leading Up to Flint Water Crisis

The Flint water crisis occurred as a result of numerous acts and decisions by officials that valued potential economic benefits over the health of the community. Sadly, many of these actions that preceded the initial water switch in 2014 were in noncompliance of government policies and regulations that lead to the catastrophic water quality issue. The Environmental Protection Agency’s Lead and Copper Rule requires that water supplies suspected of high levels of lead undergo anti-corrosion treatments (Campbell, C., Greenberg, R., Mankikar, D., & Ross, R. D. (2016).  In noncompliance of the EPA’s law, the town of Flint refused to take preventive measures although high lead levels were suspected soon after the water supply switch. Public health and water policy experts on the Flint Water Advisory Task Force, found that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality (MDEQ) described the Flint water inaccurately as they falsely claimed it as safe (Campbell, C., Greenberg, R., Mankikar, D., & Ross, R. D 2016). Individuals at the state and federal level were also found to have falsely tested the water in Flint extending the time period in which the community was exposed to the unsafe quality of water. The initial incident occurred in April of 2014, it wasn’t until December of 2015 that residents were notified of the water quality hazard. 

Systematic Racism: Legal Action

 The Michigan Civil Rights Commision has worked hard to support the Flint community by holding a series of hearings to determine if civil rights had been violated by the events relating to the Flint water distribution system (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017). These three hearings have revealed a significant amount of information to the Commission, considering not only the current epidemic but the history of environmental injustice that has repeatedly affected the community of Flint. The MDCR acknowledge that “The people of Flint have been subjected to unprecedented harm and hardship, much of it caused by structural and systemic discrimination and racism that have corroded your city, your institutions, and your water pipes, for generations.” (Michigan Civil Rights Commission, 2017, p. V). These findings highlighted the role of systematic racism played in the water crisis and helped to establish claims for the class action lawsuits that would later come.

The Debate

The Flint water crisis is a current epidemic that has not been properly acknowledged by the United States legal system and government officials at the state and federal level. The debate revolves around who is to blame for this tragic event and how the system failed to prevent and protect the civil rights of all Americans regardless of their demographics.  Despite two decades of grassroots organizing and recognition from the U.S Environmental Protection Agency that environmental justice is a concern; the book, How Do You Make Them So Clean and White? clarifies that our system “raise serious doubts about the ability of current politics and institutions to adequately protect people of color and the poor from toxic threats.” (Zimring, 2015. p.221). Many of the legal cases involved in Flint reveal that flawed system which our country operates under suggesting that something be done to change how environmental injustice cases are handled.

Do People Have the Right to Clean Water?

 According to the Constitution, clean water is not considered a constitutional right, although many researchers and government agencies would argue against this claim (Samilton, 2018).  The state claims they are not liable for the devastating health crisis the people of Flint have endured. The Flint Water Advisory Task Force (FWATF) concluded through extensive research that numerous occasions occurred where the State of Michigan’s agencies were at fault of noncompliance of basic regulations and laws. The FWATF suggests that the civil rights of the people in Flint have been forgotten due to their race and socioeconomic status. Despite these allegations, Judge Judith Levy dismissed the state of Michigan from being a defendant in the case including former mayor Dayne Walling and Governor Rick Snyder (Kvetenadze, 2018.). Eliminating the state of Michigan from the lawsuit shifts the blame from the state level to the federal level which is less likely to give the people of Flint Justice for the actions made by the state level. Sadly, the debate is still being made whether Americans have the right to safe drinking water. Although in most communities this is not even a question. For communities like Flint this is a legitimate concern and struggle to ensure basic necessities are appropriately being met. 

Ability to Be Noncompliant

All laws and policies should be abided by government officials regardless of the communities demographics. Alarmingly, patterns have been revealed in the government’s decision-making skills and ability to follow environmental regulations according to the demographics of the area. David M. Konisky and Christopher Reenock discussed in their article, “Compliance Bias and Environmental (In)Justicethe link between biased decision making indirectly and directly in agencies. The biased acts contribute to the ability to be compliant or noncompliant towards environmental protection laws. This study concluded that community demographics and regulatory enforcement are directly related to the how regulations and policies are abided by (Konisky & Reenock, 2013). “We argue that the costs associated with noncompliance (firms) and failure to detect noncompliance (bureaucrats) are lower in poor and minority communities because these communities have fewer resources with which to document and protest noncompliance.” (Konisky & Reenock, 2013 p. 507). Compliant behavior should be found in every situation when dealing with environmental policies that work to regulate the safety, health, and environmental concerns throughout the nation. Government agencies need to be held responsibility and debate revolves around the role these individuals play in events like Flint’s water crisis.

Was the Water Even to Blame?

The debate surfaced around whether the water was to blame for causing the outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in residents of Genesee County. Researchers and officials studied the water of Flint and concluded that the lack of corrosion control in the Flint water supply resulted in chemical changes in the water (Diep, 2018). Due to the failure to comply to the EPA’s Lead and Copper Rule, water chemistry demonstrated abnormal levels of chlorine that were not monitored resulting in the Legionella bacteria to flourish in such environment (Diep, 2018).  Nick Lyon Michigan’s health director failed to act during this time period. Lyon decisions not to alert the public of potential bacteria spreading through the water source resulted in charges of involuntary manslaughter. Although, Lyon claimed the water showed no signs of bacteria and that it was logical to believe that hospitals were spreading this disease in his defense. The denial that city’s health director Nick Lyon submerged himself in, reveals the skewed view which he sees the situation from.

The Proposal

The complexity of environmental justice cases involve numerous officials at state, local, and federal levels across various agencies make addressing these cases very difficult. In order to properly solve this problem, the fundamentals of our government system should be resolved but that is unrealistic, therefore working on adapting laws and policies is the most probable solution. Communities awareness and community mobility area also important aspects to help solve transition power to the residents of cities like Flint, who do not get the federal support they should.

Measuring Compliance

Systemic racism is a major problem in cases of environmental injustice and it indirectly is allowing for government officials to hold minority communities to lower standards than privileged neighborhoods. The federal court cases related to Flint are revealing the biased decisions and behaviors of officials allowed in the legal system. Compliance can be measured and clearly recognized by regulatory officers to help agencies take accountability for noncompliance (Konisky & Reenock, 2013). As suggested by Konisky and Reenock, assigning a measurement system for compliance could be useful for communities like Flint, to be aware of whether facilities in the communities are considered High Priority Violators (HPV). The HPV status is given to facilities who are not meeting the standard criteria for different levels of environmental concerns that policies and regulations define. In the DCE model, emphasized the increasing incentives for both firms and regulatory officers in decisions made relating to compliance (Konisky & Reenock, 2013). Facilities that have HPV statuses will automatically increase charges and fees for officials that work against the system and fail to comply with regulations affecting these facilities. This proposal would put a high penalty and price on federal, state, and local officials actions that do not abide by environmental laws.

Community Mobilization

Minority communities often do not have a lot of resources or regulatory officers to monitor the decisions made regarding environmental policies. Sadly, this known fact is taken into consideration by decision-makers, who often do not comply with the law in areas that don’t have the means to trace their actions. Communities with higher political capacity are able to influence the decisions by officials and compliance (Konisky & Reenock, 2013). Action needs to be taken in the community to overcome collective action and exercise for residents to express their own political voice in efforts to hold lawmakers accountable for providing equality (Konisky & Reenock). It is suggested by David Konisky and Christopher Reenock that “shaming” poor performers and putting direct pressure on decision-makers will likely impact their actions as their public imagine will be negatively impacted from failure to abide by the law (2013 p. 509). Community mobilization helps to shift the power from the larger government agencies to help create a community who fends for themselves. The ability for residents to be active in the community helps them to be aware of the decisions being made by local officials. Awareness is key to for trust to be built at the local level and for members of cities to feel decisions are made with their best interest in mind.

Community Awareness

Community based awareness is critical for minority communities that endure environmental inequalities due to the lack of trust these individuals have for government officials. In Flint, many of the residents feel that the Governor has not advocated for their needs and their poor decisions left children and families poisoned with lead.  In the article, “Environmental Health Literacy in Support of Social Action: An Environmental Justice Perspective”, authors Brandi M. White, Eric S. Hall, and Cheryl Johnson concluded an experiment and research analysis that supported community awareness in environmental subjective areas. Community-driven advocacy was found to be the most preferred and trusted source of information.They concluded that 45% of the 42 individuals involved in the study rely solely on friends and family to provide them with information about environmental concerns; while none of them relied on government officials (White, Hall, & Johnson). As suggested in this case study, communities recommended creating a residential network with residents of their neighborhood, who were formally trained in environmental health issues to advocate to others (White, et al.).

What’s Next or Current Status?

The battle in Flint, Michigan is still not over almost 4 years after the initial water supply switch. The people in this community have been left with no trust or hope in the federal government system. Although some legal action was taken, charging over a dozen officials in this epidemic, the fight has not been easy and the state has fought back to deny responsibility in this matter delaying resources and actions to fix the problem. Federal and state funding has been provided to the city of Flint to help restore the cities corroded pipes and address the epidemic that many of their officials decisions caused. State taxpayers have provided $350 million and 100 million by the federal government to help water quality expenses and the expensive pipe replacement project officials tried to avoid (“Flint Water Crisis: Settlement to Launch Groundbreaking Program to Assess Impacts on Flint Children “, 2018). Recently, in April, 2018 State Governor Rick Snyder announced Flint’s water has reported lead levels of 4 ppb or below, falling below the federal action level of 115 ppb (“Flint Water Crisis: Settlement to Launch Groundbreaking Program to Assess Impacts on Flint Children”, 2018). The results of these tests has lead Snyder to close Access and Functional Need (AFN) distribution centers, including bottle water supply (“Flint Water Crisis: Settlement to Launch Groundbreaking Program to Assess Impacts on Flint Children”, 2018). Many residents are not happy with this decision and feel that bottle waters should be supplied until the lead corroded pipes are replaced, as suggested by Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha.

Legal action is still underway and two class action lawsuits seeking claims of violated civil rights against local and state officials have been given the green lightby the U.S Supreme Court to proceed forward (Hurley, 2018). Debate has surfaced around who is to blame in these cases and in August of this year federal judge just announced that Governor Rick Snyder was removed from potential defendants in the class-action lawsuits as well as the state government (Kvetenadze, 2018). Judge Levy dismissal of Snyder and state government is yet another decision made that fails to acknowledge the responsibility and role individuals play in this environmental injustice case. Currently, the lawsuit cannot proceed until a plaintiff is approved in the case, which has been a challenge due to the lack of direct evidence the judiciary system is claiming in these cases.

  In the meantime, attorneys fighting for Flint school children have come to a groundbreaking agreement between the Michigan Department of Education, Genesee Intermediate School District (GISD) and Flint Community Schools. The agreement to establish program to provide universal screening, and critical assessment and resources to all children impacted by the Flint water crisis (“Flint Water Crisis: Settlement to Launch Groundbreaking Program to Assess Impacts on Flint Children”, 2018). The devastating impact lead exposure has on children has irreversible neurotoxicological effects that result in behavioral, intellectual, social, and cognitive development decline. The prognosis of lead poisoning requires long-term management due to the fact lead remains in the body for decades after exposure (Lead toxicity Prognosis – Epocrates Online, 2018). Managing treatment will be done greatly through the school system as they collaborate with Genesee Health System/Hurley Children’s Hospital Neurodevelopmental Center of Excellence (NCE) and Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha will run the new program. The school system plays a critical role in helping to address the needs of children who endure side effects from the toxic chemical, funding has been provided to special education programs, Head Start Programs, and Early Childhood Intervention Programs.

The major concern regarding the Flint, Michigan community revolves around the public health emergency that has been declared for the town of Flint. The disproportionate level of environmental burdens and inadequate access to generic resources in communities of mainly non-White, low income, and racial minorities represents environmental injustice. This is an example of the neglects and suffering that many minority communities endure on a daily basis; Flint happens to be a perfect scenario of how quickly the lives of thousands can be changed forever due to the ability for government officials to be noncompliant.

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