Flint Water Crisis: The Importance of Building a Grassroots Environmental Justice Infrastructure

Dayna Jones is a 2018 J.D. candidate at Lewis and Clark Law school in Portland, Oregon. She is a board representative of the Native American Law Student Association and a student member of the National Lawyers Guild. Dayna’s passions lie in indigenous rights and environmental justice.
Dayna Jones is a 2018 J.D. candidate at Lewis and Clark Law school in Portland, Oregon. She is a board representative of the Native American Law Student Association and a student member of the National Lawyers Guild. Dayna’s passions lie in indigenous rights and environmental justice.

The Flint water crisis is a tremor before the earthquake that is going to rip through America if we do not act fast in replacing our failing, old, toxic water infrastructure. The lead piping that runs under the city and is providing poisoned water to residents is not unique to Flint. Rather, there are an estimated three to six million miles of lead pipes carrying water through America as we speak. Many of these lead pipes were installed in the late 19th and early 20th century, at the beginning of the United States’ industrial era and before the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) was created to help set and enforce acceptable limits to lead in tap water.

The populations that have the highest risks of water poisoning in the United States are also the least represented. Victims of environmental racism and environmental justice are often disempowered politically, lacking agency and education to help influence the process by which governing decisions are made. While under the control of an unelected emergency manager, the city council of Flint never even took a vote on whether to switch their water source or look to other alternatives to cut back on their budget. We cannot look at long-term solutions for Flint without realizing its connection to environmental justice and environmental racism.

Flint has been catapulted into the national spotlight as a result of the river water poisoning children through lead pipes. The pipes could have been treated with an anti-corrosive agent, as is standard in many cities with old lead pipes, but they were not. Upon being switched from Detroit’s city water to Flint’s river water, many residents immediately observed the foul stench, unpleasant odor, and the dark color of Flint’s water made it unsafe for consumption- but the city continually assured them the water was fine. Virginia Tech conducted a study on 30 bottles of tap water from a home in Flint and found, “The drinking water samples all had extremely high lead levels between 200 ppb to 13,200 ppb. Water containing more than 5,000 ppb of lead, exceeds criteria that classifies water as a hazardous waste. The US EPA action level for lead is 15 ppb and the World Health Organization (WHO) maximum lead level is 10 ppb.” Take note of what that actually means: the people of Flint have been drinking and bathing themselves and their children in water that has a higher lead content than that of hazardous waste.

We know the situation in Flint is dire, and we know that officials are scrambling for both long and short-term solutions. As bottled water donations pour in, demands are made for politician accountability, and the Goliath question of how to permanently replace the faulty pipes in Flint are all on the forefront of people’s minds. I posit that we also ask ourselves- who is next? With infrastructure at least a century old all over the United States, what is the next city we can expect to see children in the hospital with lead poisoning in? Is it my town, is it yours?

Speaking of the water infrastructure problems in Washington D.C., George S. Hawkins, CEO and GM of the District of Columbia Water and Sewer Authority told the Washington Post, “All the big cities have these problems, and to me it’s the unseen catastrophe. My humble view is that the industry we’re in is the bedrock of civilization because it’s not just an infrastructure that is a convenience, that allows you to get to work faster or slower. At least with bridges or a road, people have some idea of what it is because they drive on them and see them.”   On February 3rd, Vox reported that in 2014 there were 17 cities in Pennsylvania where 10 percent of the children tested positive for lead exposure. The town that reported the highest levels of lead exposure was Allentown, a city comprised of approx. 58% minorities. In New York City, Brooklyn has the highest levels of lead exposure.

The American Water Works Association estimates that replacing this infrastructure could cost more than one trillion dollars. With a number that high, it is no wonder that most politicians and policy-makers who have the ability to attempt to tackle infrastructure in their area pass the buck on to their heirs, opting instead for investment in projects that give more seemingly gratifying and tangible results.

Local citizens need to have access to political power and education on their environment so they can become powerful grassroots activists for the health of their community. The EPA says environmental justice is achieved “when everyone enjoys the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards and equal access to the decision-making process to have a healthy environment in which to live, learn, and work.” If you live in a rich, upper-class white neighborhood, there is a good chance that the government will respond to you quicker and with more targeted, deliberate action than if you live in a lower socioeconomic neighborhood comprised of higher percentages of minorities. The slow, unorganized, poor response of FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina (which struck low income, minority-dominant New Orleans) that left hundreds stranded on rooftops and thousands stuck inside an overflowing Superdome contrasted with the prompt, clean, and effective FEMA response to Hurricane Sandy (which struck the primarily white and more affluent New Jersey coast) is a striking example of how government actors continue to fail in providing for all of the citizens of the United States equally. This sad reality is the nucleus of environmental justice and environmental racism. Unfortunately, the Flint water crisis is another example in the United States of how far this ideal is from being met.

Communications have now surfaced that show government officials were alerted to the issue of lead in the water as early as July of 2014. Despite this knowledge, trusted public officials told the citizens of Flint that the toxic water coming in through their pipes was safe for consumption. Flint citizens are reported to be 56.6% black with median household income from 2009-2013 of $24,834, and only 11% of the population holds an education of at least a bachelor’s degree. One of America’s poorest cities, 41% of the population in Flint lives below the poverty line. Even before this disaster, Flint was a poster child for communities that are most at risk to experience the failure of our water infrastructure in severe ways. Inability to afford and have access to self-monitoring water quality systems, the absence of education on poisoning symptoms, lack of financial resources to just pick up and leave, and low political power and economic mobility are all factors that aid in vulnerable communities becoming victims to environmental justice.

Flint is not the only vulnerable community experiencing toxic amounts of lead in its water. The Detroit News reports, “Of over 7,000 children tested in the Highland Park and Hamtramck areas of Detroit in 2014, 13.5 percent tested positive for lead. Among four zip codes in Grand Rapids, one in ten children had lead in their blood. In Adrian and south-central Michigan, more than 12 percent of 640 children tested had positive results.” These are all areas that are primarily composed of low-income, minority populations. In Seabring, Ohio citizens are becoming alerted to the possibility of lead in their water, and Washington D.C. has been under fire for its handling of lead-contaminated water since 2001.

Arvin Trujillo, Director of Natural Resources for the Navajo Nation, estimates that as of 2015, a staggering 40% of the 173,000 residents of Navajo Nation lack access to running water. Additionally, both the Navajo and the Sioux Nation report uranium-laced water as a result of decades of mining on their lands, resulting in increased levels of cancer and disease. Sonia Luokkala of Earth Island Journal reports, “ In 2014, the EPA scanned almost 500 mines across Navajo Nation for radiation; the majority measured levels at least 10-times greater than background radiation levels, some as high as 25-times background radiation. Many of the highest radiating mines were found to be located within a quarter-mile of inhabited structure.” The federal government is working with the Navajo through its Superfund program to clean up abandoned uranium mines and their bioproducts, but some Navajo estimate that the damage will take at least 100 years to fix. Flint is not an outlier when it comes to water contamination. Rather, Flint is the city that is finally putting the issues of infrastructure and environmental justice on mainstream media’s radar.

Residents that are affected by poisoned water need bottled water, but they also need long-term solutions. In order to help vulnerable communities gather strength to combat the inequities of environmental justice, we must all pool our resources into helping them mobilize.

Grassroots social movements have proven to build power in some of the most marginalized individuals in our country. In order for communities to become empowered through these grassroots social movements four goals must be achieved: (1) people must have the opportunity to participate in decisions about activities that may affect their environment and/or health; (2) the public’s contribution must be able to influence the regulatory agency’s decision; (3) the public’s concerns must be considered in the decision making process; and (4) the decision makers must seek out and facilitate the involvement of those potentially affected (Laurent, 2011).

The most successful environmental justice movements, like that of Love Canal in New York, have been organized not by federal or state actors, but by local concerned citizens taking initiative to make their voices and plights heard. When housewives of Love Canal, New York discovered (after conducting their own research) their families were being poisoned by toxic waste, they demanded then-President Jimmy Carter to move the 900 families in the community from a 21,000-ton toxic dump to an environmentally sound place. Politics is by definition an allocation of who gets what, when, and where. If marginalized voices are not aggregated for representation, than those voices will not have a say in where, when, and how the new water pipe lines are placed in their state.

Grassroots movements within the community are essential to ensure that the infrastructure decisions are not passed on by policymakers. Lobbyists for every big-money interest will be vying for their share of the pie when state budgets are being formed, so it is important that the will of the people is given just as much weight (even more so) in the decision making process. Additionally, infrastructure developments in communities create much needed jobs, providing a return of economic, environmental, and health benefits when a community invests in itself.

Presently, the nation is watching the politicians of Michigan flop around like fish out of water, trying to place band-aids on bullet wounds. There is the usual finger pointing and blame game that accompanies any government failure, but all of this theater is distracting Americans from the cold reality there are many more water crisis in America, bubbling right under our noses. Some have race and class to shield them from governmental inaction, as million dollar zip codes will have much larger funds to mitigate a water crisis- should they have one- than say, Detroit, Michigan, Allentown, Pennsylvania, Sebring, Ohio, or the Navajo nation. But what we do know is that Flint is the tip of the iceberg.

As a nation we must stand behind communities that are victims of environmental justice, helping empower them to raise their voices loud and clear. We must not make the mistake of thinking we are too far removed from a problem within our country for it to affect us, or become desensitized to what it means to have children poisoned by lead from old, leaky water infrastructure. Bottled water isn’t the answer, anti-corroding chemicals aren’t the answer- community based solutions to replacing our outdated infrastructure is the answer. Together the most powerful and the most marginalized communities of America must stand together and demand that our physical and environmental health become a priority on the budget line of all our politicians and policy-makers, and we must not be afraid to continuously fight for this until it is achieved.


Dayna Jones is a 2018 J.D. candidate at Lewis and Clark Law school in Portland, Oregon.  She is a board representative of the Native American Law Student Association and a student member of the National Lawyers Guild. Dayna’s passions lie in indigenous rights and environmental justice.

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