Lead Lined Future
“I’ll go without water tonight.”
That’s what I said when DC Water & Sewer Authority shut off water to all main campus facilities at American University for a 6-hour emergency test. This was inconvenient, but not life threatening as is the case in Flint where children face the possibility of a future plagued with lead-induced convulsions and cognitive impairment. Amazingly, the Michigan government charges Flint residents among the highest water rates in the United States. Flint residents are now at risk of losing their homes for refusing to pay for this poisoned water.
This scenario is not unique. Flint is predominately composed of people of color and low-income residents – communities that are disproportionately affected by environmental degradation.
The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) prevents agencies from discriminating against these groups, but the Trump Administration’s March budget proposal outlines a 78% cut to the EPA’s environmental justice program.
A contributing factor to the disproportionate environmental degradation is marginalized communities’ lack of representation in environmental organizations. Dorceta Taylor, a doctor of Environmental Studies and professor of environmental justice, surveyed 200 American environmental organizations. Dr. Taylor found that people of color represent almost thirty percent of the science and engineering workforce, yet “people of color never occupied more than 16 percent of the staff.”
The lack of representation has a compounding negative effect. It signals to the nation that people of color don’t belong in environmental organizations. This causes hesitation in people of color in approaching the field of study, and environmental organizations may not hire these individuals due to this implicit bias. The cycle of disproportionate environmental degradation perpetuated by lack of representation will continue. By excluding the input of communities who are suffering, we are complicit in making them bound to relive toxic experiences.
Vulnerable groups continue to be told that their conditions are due to happenstance. A professor at NYU School of Law, Vicki Been, with Francis Gupta, then a PhD Economics student at NYU, studied three decade-long data sets and concluded that African American communities are no more likely to have toxic facilities placed in their neighborhoods than any other communities. Been, with Gupta, also state that the facility sitings neither “intentionally [nor] unintentionally target neighborhoods with high percentages of people below the poverty line.”
By contrast, Paul Mohai, David Pellow and J. Timmons Roberts – experts in environmental studies on race, policy, and economic development – contend that the damaging sites “tend to be located in particularly vulnerable communities.” Their more modern research shows that these groups are “selected systematically for the location of noxious facilities.” Without recognition of the legitimacy of these marginalized communities’ struggles, their voices will continue to go unheard, and their situations will worsen.
With the increase of environmental issues that pose immediate risks, we cannot afford systemic environmental degradation. We can combat this by (1) letting marginalized voices be heard through representation, (2) ensuring that organizations that protect these rights (such as the EPA) are also protected, (3) analyzing governmental policies to ensure that they address inequity and (4) ensuring that future environmental studies also address inequity.
Water service resumed as normal at AU before 6 hours had passed. But this was not the reality for the children in Flint during the worst moments of this crisis. Their situation warranted more action than a dismissive, “it is not the end of the world” from country leaders – and it demands more from all of us.
Faith Lewis, Environmental Studies and Economics Major, (Class of 2020) American University, Washington D.C.
Editor's Note: Click here for a Washington Post Article discussing how Flint residents have been receiving foreclosure warnings.