SOUTHFIELD—Part of the legacy of the Flint water crisis is a resurgence of interest in environmental justice and the notion that packing polluters into poor and minority neighborhoods is another form of racial and class discrimination.
That was the word from Benjamin Pauli, a professor at Flint’s Kettering University, who presented the 13th annual Harold Hotelling Memorial Lecture at Lawrence Technological University Tuesday night.
Pauli said environmental justice is also linked inextricably with politics, getting a boost under the Biden Administration but eyed for the chopping block in documents like Project 2025, a blueprint produced by the conservative Heritage Foundation for sweeping cuts and policy changes in the federal government in the event of a 2024 election win by former President Donald Trump.
Overall, Pauli said, the theory of environmental justice is that environmental quality is one of the basic goods that people need to live in dignity and safety—and that society regularly produces inequalities in who gets good environmental quality, and who’s forced to live with bad environmental conditions. “When there’s no good reason for that inequality, when it comes from structural barriers of racism or poverty, we’re dealing with environmental injustice—an undeserved form of unequal treatment,” Pauli said.
Pauli said the environmental justice movement got its start in the 1970s with a protest of a landfill for contaminated soil in a majority-Black county in North Carolina. There was a surge of interest in the 1980s, which peaked in the 1990s, with then-President Bill Clinton creating an Office of Environmental Equity in the Environmental Protection Agency. But then interest waned, as several efforts to use existing civil rights laws and new regulatory theories to stop polluters from building plants in poor neighborhoods lost in court and regulatory decisions. Among them was an unsuccessful effort in Flint to block a wood-burning power plant on civil rights grounds.
Another unsuccessful tactic was denying new pollution-producing plants permits based on the total cumulative effect of several polluters concentrated in one area. Pauli said this effort amounted to asking “When can a community say ‘no more?’” But the EPA has been slow to produce a scientific basis for making that calculation, he said.
Then Flint hit the headlines. In April 2014, a state-appointed emergency manager, as a cost-saving move, switched the city’s water intake from Detroit-supplied water to water from the Flint River. But the water wasn’t properly treated, causing water lines to leach lead and other contaminants into city water. Residents began complaining about the taste and appearance of the water in May 2014 but were initially rebuffed by officials. By February 2015, high lead levels were detected in Flint water. State officials continued to claim the water was safe through the summer, but in September, scientists from Virginia Tech University tested water from hundreds of homes and found high lead levels. A state of emergency was finally declared in October 2015.
Flint’s water became national news, and a huge effort was mounted to improve the city’s water infrastructure. “Part of the legacy of the Flint water crisis is that it helped raise expectations on the size and scope of governmental reaction to cases like this,” Pauli said. “Congress gave the city $100 million, and there was other federal and state financial support—not enough to address all the issues in Flint, but it was pretty serious money, and there were non-monetary resources that came Flint’s way. Expectations are rising.”
Pauli also noted that the tainted water produced an outbreak of Legionnaire’s disease in Flint in 214 and 2015 that killed 12 people. “This arguably was the worst public health outcome of the Flint crisis,” he said.
Pauli said environmental justice hit “four years of darkness” during the Trump administration, when little progress was made—but with the election of Joe Biden, the EPA combined its office of civil rights with the office of environmental justice and elevated its status to the highest in the agency. Biden’s infrastructure bill, American Rescue Plan, Inflation Reduction Act, and several executive orders have produced “the largest investment in environmental justice in the history of this country.”
And while the EPA has still not released a scientific framework for assessing the total cumulative effect of concentrating polluting industries in a given area, some states, like California and New Jersey, and cities like Minneapolis, Chicago, and Newark, N.J. have done so.
Pauli noted that with initiatives like Project 2025, “the future of environmental justice is by no means certain. In the past several years the environmental justice movement has gained huge ground, but it has also experienced some significant setbacks. Flint is an important protagonist in the environmental justice movement, and I think that will continue.”
To view a video of the lecture, visit LTU’s YouTube channel at https://www.youtube.com/@lawrencetechu .
Pauli is the author of the book “Flint Fights Back: Environmental Justice and Democracy in the Flint Water Crisis” (MIT Press, 2019), acting chair of the Flint Water System Advisory Council, president of the board of the Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint (etmflint.org), and a member of the National Environmental Justice Advisory Council to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (NEJAC). In his role with NEJAC, Pauli has worked on policy recommendations around PFAS remediation, water infrastructure, water treatment, water utility communications, and cumulative impacts.
Pauli earned a Bachelor of Arts in politics and values from the University of Washington-Tacoma, and Master of Arts and Ph.D. degrees in political science from Rutgers University. Before joining the Kettering faculty in 2015 he was a lecturer at Rutgers.
The Harold Hotelling Memorial Lecture Series was founded to honor an esteemed LTU scholar and colleague. Harold Hotelling (1945–2009) joined Lawrence Tech as an associate professor of economics in 1989 and taught courses in business law, business ethics, constitutional law, urban social issues, and law and economics. His life was marked by an unwavering dedication to his family, his church, his students, and his profession. Everyone who knew him benefited from his keen intellect, tireless devotion, quick wit, and wonderful sense of humor. Hotelling’s contributions to Lawrence Tech will always be remembered, but more importantly, he will be remembered as an exceptional individual and a dear friend.
Lawrence Technological University is one of only 13 private, technological, comprehensive doctoral universities in the United States. Located in Southfield, Mich., LTU was founded in 1932 and offers more than 100 programs through its Colleges of Architecture and Design, Arts and Sciences, Business and Information Technology, Engineering, and Health Sciences, as well as Specs@LTU as part of its growing Center for Professional Development. PayScale lists Lawrence Tech among the nation’s top 11 percent of universities for alumni salaries. Forbes and The Wall Street Journal rank LTU among the nation’s top 10 percent. U.S. News and World Report list it in the top tier of the best Midwest colleges. Students benefit from small class sizes and a real-world, hands-on, “theory and practice” education with an emphasis on leadership. Activities on Lawrence Tech’s 107-acre campus include more than 60 student organizations and NAIA varsity sports.