ANN ARBOR—On April 25, 2014, the city of Flint began using the Flint River as its drinking water source. The switch, imposed on the city by state-appointed emergency managers, led to what University of Michigan researcher Paul Mohai calls it the worst example of environmental injustice in recent United States history.
Mohai, a professor at the UM School for Environment and Sustainability, was a founder of the U.S. environmental justice movement and began studying the topic in the late 1980s.
“Given the magnitude of the disaster in Flint, the role that public officials’ decisions played that led to the poisoning of the city’s water, their slow pace at acknowledging and responding to the problem, and the fact that Flint is a city of almost 100,000 people indeed makes this the most egregious example of environmental injustice and racism in my over three decades of studying this issue,” Mohai said. “One of the important lessons from the Flint water crisis is the importance of preserving and protecting the local democracy and a system of accountability. The voices of community residents need to be heard and taken seriously, rather than disrespected, minimized or dismissed.”
At UM, Mohai and emeritus SEAS professor Bunyan Bryant organized the 1990 Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards, and they were part of an influential group of scholars that became known as the Michigan Coalition.
Since those early days, numerous studies—including several by Mohai and Bryant—have revealed a pattern across the country: Certain communities are disproportionately burdened by environmental contamination and health risks. Like Flint, those places tend to be locations where poor people and people of color are concentrated.
“They are also places where residents are not given meaningful say in the decisions that affect their communities and quality of life, where their concerns about pollution and the health impacts are minimized, discounted or dismissed, and where residents are treated disrespectfully and shown they have little influence or clout,” Mohai wrote in an article published in October 2018 in the Michigan Sociological Review.
Flint fits that pattern, and the scale of what happened there “has made environmental justice a part of the American consciousness,” he wrote.
Over the years, several definitions of environmental justice have been advanced, including one from the Environmental Protection Agency. 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, according to the EPA definition.
One of the consequences of the Flint water crisis was a call by the 2016 Flint Water Advisory Task Force to develop an environmental justice plan for Michigan in order to avoid similar crises in the future.
In March 2018, 33 recommendations were submitted to then-Gov. Rick Snyder by the Environmental Justice Work Group he appointed, on which U-M’s Mohai served. Several of the recommendations focused on giving residents avenues to voice their concerns to state agencies about environmental problems in their communities.
“Some of these recommendations have been implemented by executive directives, such as the creation last July of an environmental justice ombudsman in the governor’s office and an interagency EJ work group,” Mohai said. “However, a lot yet needs to be done to implement the remaining 33 recommendations and to achieve genuine environmental justice for all in the state.”
The Flint crisis began when a state-appointed emergency manager decided in June 2013 to switch Flint’s water supply to the Flint River as a cost-cutting measure. When the switch was made April 25, 2014, the river water was not properly treated to guard against corrosion, which allowed lead and other contaminants to leach into residents’ water.
Flint residents noticed the change in water quality almost immediately, and started to complain about it. The response by state officials was to publicly dismiss those concerns and to issue what turned out to be false assurances to the residents, Mohai wrote. It wasn’t until October 2015 that the state officially acknowledged Flint’s water contamination.
Several types of environment injustice were on display in Flint’s water crisis, according to Mohai. They include serious shortcomings related to distributive justice, procedural justice, corrective justice and social justice.
“What stands out about the Flint Water Crisis … is the apparent indifference and lack of concern that harm might be created,” Mohai wrote in the Michigan Sociological Review. “And even after the harm was created and finally acknowledged, there has been and apparent lack of sense of urgency to fix the problems. A fear I have is that the longer they remain unresolved, the more likely what has happened in Flint will become a precedent and model for how similar catastrophes are handled by state and federal governments in the future. The Flint Water Crisis and its aftermath should serve as a wakeup call for us all.”