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Reminders on MLK Day that pollution is often an affront to civil rights, too

The leading horrific example, at the moment, of the environmental burdens borne unfairly by people of color, or poverty, or both comes from Flint, Michigan.

Of course the leading horrific example, at the moment, of the environmental burdens borne unfairly by people of color, or poverty, or both comes from Flint, Michigan.
REUTERS/Rebecca Cook

In the cold light of morning on MLK Day I asked Google News to serve up a selection of articles on “environmental justice” and got results that made it easy to postpone breakfast until afternoon.

Of course the leading horrific example, at the moment, of the environmental burdens borne unfairly by people of color, or poverty, or both comes from Flint, Michigan.

Atop all the other problems endured by this beleaguered former capital of General Motors, local and state officials have managed to supply the residents with extraordinarily high levels of lead in their drinking water since April of 2014.

Having made the initial error to draw water from the Flint River, whose corrosive properties leach lead from old pipes, officials then issued a stream of reassuring lies about the safety of drinking water that residents could tell by sight and smell was grossly impure.

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It’s looking likely that significant responsibility will eventually attach to the administration of Gov. Rick Snyder and some of it personally to the governor, who says he wasn’t aware the situation was so dire until last October, just before Flint resumed buying water from Detroit.

But the elevated lead levels continue, and as Snyder prepares for his state of the state address tonight, the Michigan press is preparing to draw unwelcome parallels to last year’s speech, in which Snyder promised that a “river of opportunity” would be lifting all boats across the state.

Not so much in Flint. As of Saturday, the White House had declared a state of emergency for the city of 425,000 – at Snyder’s request, following by a few days his deployment of National Guard troops to help distribute potable water – and the state health department was pleading with residents to keep testing the water from their taps, because the extent of ongoing contamination remains uncertain.

Mark Grudt, a construction worker from Livonia, made the obvious point in a comment to the Detroit Free Press – that it’s no coincidence this massive poisoning occurred in a city where 56 percent of the population is African-American and 40 percent live on incomes below the federal poverty line.

We’ve known there’s a problem in Flint for over a year. Had this been an affluent community, it wouldn’t have gotten this far.

The burdens of coal ash

If Flint is an egregious example of environmental injustice, it is exceptional only in degree.

This Friday, the U.S. Civil Rights Commission will convene a hearing intended, in the words of its chairman, Michael Castro, to “to shine a light on the civil rights implications of toxic coal ash, as well as other environmental conditions, on communities most in need of protection.”

Specifically, it will be looking at the extent to which policies and enforcement actions by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have or have not protected communities where coal-fired industrial plants deposit the ash that remains after combustion, laden not only with lead but mercury, cadmium and chromium.

According to editor Brian Bienkowski, writing in Environmental Health News,

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There are about 200 sites nationwide where coal ash pollution has tainted air and water. The most recent disaster was in 2014 at Duke Energy’s Dan River Steam Station in North Carolina where 39,000 tons of coal ash and 27 million gallons of wastewater gushed into the Dan River. …

Waste disposal rules for coal ash were unchanged for more than 30 years until Earthjustice filed a lawsuit in 2012 forcing the EPA’s hand. The agency finalized new rules in December 2014 and began phasing them in last October — requiring ash ponds to monitor groundwater for harmful pollutants, bolster the ponds that hold the ash, and set limits on the levels of coal ash discharged into rivers.

The cities living with coal ash are typically smaller, more rural and more Southern than, say, Flint.

Take Uniontown, Alabama. Of its 1,600 people, Bienkowski writes, about nine in 10 are black;  three in four live in households with incomes below the national median; half live below the federal poverty line.

To Uniontown, it looked like economic opportunity to provide a home for a coal-ash landfill that now holds 3 million cubic yards of the stuff. No doubt the calculus was similar in other places where, according to EPA estimates, 1.5 million Americans of color live within the “catchment” zones of potential leaks and spills from ash disposal.

Methane and liquefied gas

Coal and its residues are of course an issue in Kentucky, too, but not the only affliction on the poorer sides of towns.

From Louisville’s West End, a historic  center of bourbon production, I see news of a citywide gathering to celebrate cancellation of a project that would have extracted methane from distillery waste.

In Rhode Island, the battle lines are drawn over a proposal to saddle South Providence with another unwelcome facility, this one devoted to liquefying natural gas from the fracking fields of the Northeast.

Getting a lot of attention this week is an interactive map from the Center for Effective Government, which looks at more than 12,000 industrial facilities that handle chemicals in ways considered by the EPA  to present substantial risk to surrounding communities.

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Examining the demographics of communities within a one-mile radius of these sites, researchers found that people of color make up half the population within these so-called “fenceline” zones, and children of color make up nearly two-thirds of the 5.7 million children there. (By the way, Wisconsin is among the states where these concentrations are highest.)

For a more historical take, the New Yorker’s News Desk can take you to Afton, North Carolina, which writer Vann R. Newkirk II says could be considered the birthplace of the environmental justice movement in America – the not-so-blessed event concerning the siting of a particularly noxious landfill in a poor, black district in exchange for a community center, recreation area and other municipal amenities that aw, gee, never got built.

But that was 1972. Surely we have come a long way since then?

Lead toxicity’s long shadow

You could think, for example, of childhood lead poisoning as something we fixed over the last couple of generations by getting it out of auto exhaust, smokestack emissions, housepaint and other ubiquitous sources.

According to a report by Public Radio International, Flint’s temporary switch to river water was sufficient to double the number of children with above-average blood lead levels in the city. 

Twenty-five percent of homes whose water was tested showed levels far above the federal drinking water limit of 15 parts per billion; in some homes, the water tested at 13,200 ppb. And lots of homes haven’t been tested as yet.

Remember, too, that 15 ppb can’t be considered a “safe” level of exposure; our modern medical understanding is that no blood level of lead is safe, especially in respect to the developing brains of infants and children. For the vast range of neurological harm, immune system disruption and learning deficits it causes, the damage is permanent because there is no cure.

This was willful, people – a switch in water sources justified by a cost savings of $5 million over two years.

And as the lead investigator, Marc Edwards of Virginia Tech, said to PRI in discussing officials’ responses to the problem, “the extent to which they went  to cover this up exposes a new level of arrogance and uncaring that I have never encountered.”

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MinnPost event: On Monday, Feb. 22, MinnPost’s Earth Journal Circle will present its fourth annual event focusing on substantive discussion of critical issues in the environment. This year’s topic is “Land of 10,000 Lakes: Can We Achieve Water Sustainability?” The speaker is Deborah Swackhamer, former director of the University of Minnesota’s Water Resources Center, who will discuss issues threatening regional water quality and quantity. Earth Journal writer Ron Meador will moderate the Q&A session.