Safe to Drink?


A distinguished group of environmental law and public health scholars addressed America’s water crisis and the need for environmental justice in Flint, Michigan, and across the nation, during the annual Fordham Environmental Law Review symposium on Feb. 10.

While the Flint water crisis—which resulted in long-lasting health damage to residents, felony charges against government employees, and an ongoing $722 million class-action lawsuit—might appear to casual observers as an aberration, panelists warned that existing environmental conditions combined with the Trump administration’s apparent indifference toward the environment raise the prospect of greater water crises.

Thus, drinking-water issues that affect 780 million people worldwide, according to a 2013 U.N. report, will impact more of America’s poor communities—particularly those where African-Americans and Latinos count as the majority—in the years to come.

Fordham Law Professors Paolo Galizzi and Sheila R. Foster moderated panels during the symposium, titled “America’s Water Crisis: An Issue of Environmental Justice.” Peter J. Hammer, a law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit, started the symposium with an impassioned keynote address on Flint, challenging his colleagues to prove “Flint Lives Matter” and to do whatever possible to “remediate the harm of people affected there.”

“Race matters, wealth matters, and history matters” when discussing Flint, Hammer said, as he outlined the intersection of structural racism that created the city’s vulnerability to its water crisis and the strategic racism that later exploited it. The abject scenario that unfolded in Flint—a city where 57 percent of its 100,000 residents are African-American and 41 percent are below the poverty line—would have never occurred in a wealthy, white community like Ann Arbor, Hammer said, noting governmental action there would have happened, swiftly, in contrast to the glacial response Flint’s residents received after reporting unsafe drinking water.

To prevent future calamities like Flint from occurring, the state of Michigan must abolish the governor’s power to name an unelected emergency manager to make financial decisions for financially destitute cities, Hammer stated. Such an emergency manager appointment in 2011 opened the door for Flint’s subsequent cost-cutting move to switch from its time-tested Detroit water supply to the Flint River, while a new pipeline, the Karegnondi Water Authority (KWA) pipeline, was built.

The political opportunism at play, whether caused by racial animus or not, makes it necessary to view the emergency manager’s push for the new pipeline, at a time when Flint had no money, as an act of strategic racism exploiting the vulnerable city and its people, Hammer said.

African-American communities in southern states also face major environmental challenges, said University of Alabama Law Professor William L. Andreen during the day’s first panel, titled “America’s Water Crisis.” Pollution of streams near these communities has only worsened due to effects of climate change, such as storms of increasing intensity creating more erosion and runoff.

“Without a gorilla in the closet, states are unlikely to fill the gap between what we need to spend and what we do spend,” to ensure clean drinking water, Andreen said, noting that, without the Environmental Protection Agency pressuring states like Alabama, a culture of transgression and apathy festers.

Andreen’s fellow panelist, Kent State University Public Health Professor John Hoornbeek, expressed skepticism that the EPA under the Trump administration would choose to confront the “multiple crises relating to water” the country faces, most notably water supply infrastructure, stormwater and stormwater runoff, and substandard water quality in rivers and streams.

Water issues could also impact sewerage, roads and public transportation, and housing, noted Howard University Law Professor Patrice Simms in the second panel, titled “An Issue of Environmental Justice.”

“From an environmental justice perspective, communities of color and low-income communities are less able to access alternative resources in each of these categories or independently take steps to protect from or avoid injury in the first place, such as purchasing bottled water or addressing lead toxicity,” Simms said.

Simms’ fellow panelist, Marianna Engelman Lado of Yale Law School, discussed the relative dearth of civil rights enforcement when these communities experience environmental injustice. Lado noted communities like Flint have filed hundreds of civil rights complaints with the EPA over the years, and the agency has failed to take action on the vast majority of them.


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