Long before people in Flint, Michigan, had to worry about brownish, putrid-smelling, lead-laced water, they worried about poisoned air. In 1992, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources approved a permit for a new power plant in a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Flint that was already home to a cement plant, an asphalt plant, and other hazardous facilities. The power station is fed with demolition wood, some of it covered in chemicals and lead-based paint, which can release toxic particles when it’s burned.
Community members, including a Catholic priest named Phil Schmitter, complained to the Environmental Protection Agency, arguing that the state violated residents’ civil rights when they allowed yet another polluter to operate in the neighborhood. According to the complaint, the decision reflected a pattern in the state of siting toxic industrial facilities in communities of color. The EPA’s Office of Civil Rights (OCR), which is supposed to police discriminatory decision-making by agencies and private companies that receive federal funding, said it would initiate an investigation in 1995. More than a decade later the agency sent a few employees out to look at the incinerator, Schmitter told me, but that was the last he heard from them. The office still has yet to release even preliminary findings.
“Twenty-one years,” Schmitter mused when I called him this week, a time lapse during which most of the other community leaders who worked to oppose the incinerator have died. “I find that egregiously offensive.” He can’t say exactly what the effect of the power plant has been on the surrounding community, which includes a school and public-housing units, because “nothing has ever been done to find out, by the state or the federal people.” The way the OCR handled that complaints is par for the course, according to environmental-justice advocates, who believe the office’s reluctance to crack down on discrimination at the state level has helped perpetuate a cycle of environmental racism not just in Michigan but across the country.
“Absolutely not,” was the response Michigan Governor Rick Snyder gave when asked if the decision to switch Flint’s water supply to a cheaper, more polluted source, and his administration’s flagrant lack of concern for residents’ health, had anything to do with the fact that the majority of Flint’s residents are black, and many poor. Snyder has blamed the crisis instead on a “handful” of incompetent bureaucrats. But as Flint Mayor Karen Weaver pointed out, it’s hard to imagine that residents in a wealthy, white suburb would be ignored and belittled for nearly two years while their children were slowly poisoned.