Monday, July 11, 2016

St. Louis, Meet Flint: Part 2: Environmental Justice

In my last blog post I showed that northern and central Michigan has a lot in common with the coal country of Appalachia in terms of mortality due to chronic disease, drug overdoses and suicides: that is, we are among the worst places for those killers in North America.  The problems are so severe that for low-income Whites mortality rates are actually rising for the first time ever.

I do not claim to understand fully why this is happening, but one concept that may be useful is that of environmental justice. The concept of environmental justice seeks to explain why health problems are concentrated in some places.  It says that in some places there are imbalances in power so large that people cannot successfully advocate for themselves. Coal country is a good example. People in
Appalachia were so dependent on the coal industry for jobs that they could not successfully demand safe working conditions, reasonable compensation and a clean environment. They were never able to diversify their economies so that when the coal industry declined and jobs disappeared families were wiped out and the tax bases of communities collapsed.

Communities where there are high levels of environmental injustice tend to have three characteristics:
  • Dependency. Residents are economically dependent on a powerful industry and are forced to tolerate abuses to survive. 
  • Powerlessness. Efforts to demand justice are unsuccessful because of the imbalances in power. 
  • Voicelessness. When residents speak out or try to tell their story they are told they are wrong or ridiculed. 
The concept of environmental justice is often applied to post-industrial cities with large communities of color like Flint, Michigan.  Flint is the city in which a government-appointed emergency manager changed the water supply to save money (good idea) without ensuring that it was treated it properly (bad idea), resulting in widespread exposure to lead. In Flint people were dependent on the auto and other manufacturing industries which began to collapse under pressure from globalization in the 1980s. Housing segregation was either legal or tolerated right into the 1970s, meaning African-Americans in Flint did not acquire wealth in the form of valuable homes at nearly the same rate as Whites. When the economy collapsed, those who could afford to do so moved, leaving mostly vulnerable low-income people behind.
The tax base shrank setting the stage for the water disaster.  Why did it take the Genesee County Health Department 18 months to figure out there was lead in the water?  The Department’s budget and staff had been more than cut in half meaning the community was powerless to protect itself.  The residents of Flint were virtually voiceless even though the protested loudly that there was something wrong with the water.  During the run up to the disaster I was in a meeting with a DEQ official who told me people in Flint didn’t know what they were talking about. “They keep showing up at meetings with bottles of brown water. The water is brown because it has iron in it!  But they won’t listen!”  He called Dr. Mark Edwards who had data that proved there was lead in the water a “Kook” and heads nodded.

Are there rural communities with widespread environmental injustice in central and northern Michigan? It is easy to think of examples. Towns in the Upper Peninsula were dependent on iron and copper mining, for example.  But I’ll write about what I know: the environmental disaster in St. Louis, Michigan in the geographic heart of the Lower Peninsula.

Beginning in the 1930s the Michigan Chemical Company produced a variety of chemicals on the banks of the Pine River in St. Louis, including DDT and a flame retardant PBB.  It was widely known as a very dirty business, encouraging employees not to worry about exposure to toxics, and dumping waste in the river and several sites in the community. But people were dependent on the company and so it got away it.  In 1978 PBB was accidently mixed into animal feed that was shipped to cattle, hog and chicken facilities throughout Michigan.  When Michiganders consumed meat, milk or eggs they were exposed to the PBB. Many farm families who ate their own animals became very ill. Today Michiganders who are tested are still found to have PBB levels six times higher than the national background level.

When farmers complained that something was making their cattle sick they were told there was nothing wrong, or that it must be due to their own bad farming practices.  Later when the real extent of the problem was discovered Michigan Chemical was allowed to pay a small settlement, and bury the plant site under a clay cap.  People in St. Louis complained that the company should be forced to pay for a clean-up but they were powerless to influence the government’s decisions, and the company was allowed to leave the state without doing so.  A few years later residents discovered that the clay cap was leaking but their voices were ignored until it was found that PBB and DDT levels in the river were actually continuing to rise.  Finally, forty years after the PBB was mixed into the animal feed the EPA declared Super Fund sites in St. Louis and began working on remediation.

Urban, mostly Black Flint, and rural, mostly White St. Louis share some unfortunate traits.  They have been dependent on industries that didn’t love them back, they have been powerless to influence decisions about their fates, and when they tried to speak out their voices were not heeded.  They share some other things too: both culminated in environmental disasters that have been incredibly expensive to clean up and both ruined the reputations of moderate republican governors who wanted to leave legacies as environmentalists but weren’t willing to put the systems in place that would truly protect the environment (Milliken for St. Louis, Snyder for Flint).

With this kind of history to unite us, Michiganders should band together to fight for environmental justice, but often we don’t. Often we feel like we are pitted against each other. Can that change?  I witnessed something recently that says maybe it can, at least for some of us.  At a community meeting at Alma College I saw this exchange between two people who I will call Bob and Betty (not their real names).  Bob burst out with “So these people in Flint don’t take care of themselves, and they mess up their water supply, and now other people like me are supposed to pay millions of dollars to bail them out?”  Betty turned to Bob and put her hand on his arm and said, “Bob, when you talk that way it makes me sad. Remember, we have been working for decades to get the government to pay millions of dollars to clean up our mess, and now they are finally, and we are glad, and people in Flint are paying their share of that, too.”  Bob thought a minute and said, “Thank-you Betty, you are right.”

I managed to go on for hundreds of words here talking about Flint without really talking about race.  In my next blog post I am going to write at length about how race influences our thinking about environmental justice, including in rural areas.

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