the incremental, cumulative environmental racism of washington, dc; our concern shouldn’t stop at Flint’s shock-inducing water crisis

Though still shock-worthy, the water crisis in Flint, Michigan is not news to most Americans. What’s more is that it’s no longer news to much of the world. Once uncovered, the actions of Rick Snyder, Flint’s Republican Governor, were understood as wholly, overwhelmingly corrupt, greedy, immoral.

To refresh your memory of the unsettling details, “…Rick Snyder nullified the free elections in Flint, deposed the mayor and city council, then appointed his own man to run the city.” In addition, “to save money, they decided to unhook the people of Flint from their fresh water drinking source, Lake Huron, and instead, make the public drink from the toxic Flint River.”

Each one of the residents of Flint, which includes 9,000 children, has been exposed to this toxic water, which includes levels of lead that have caused irreversible brain damage amongst many. There are a number of other, equally harmful, toxins in Flint’s water and countless other diseases that have resulted from it, such as Legionnaires Disease. Eighty-seven people have already been diagnosed with it, and at least 10 have died from it.

The events that transpired in Flint–the (at best, indifferent and at worst, racist) political leadership that caused the mass dispersion of toxic water as well as the overwhelming effects of the consumption and use of the water–in the form of a sudden, stark increase in related health problems in Flint residents, is what makes this particular case of environmental injustice so news worthy. There are countless cases of environmental injustice, in the form of environmental racism (that Flint’s leadership is being accused of), that go unnoticed and unreported because, I would argue, the causes and effects are not as easy to pinpoint–to attribute to a single individual or administration.

In fact, as in the case with Washington, DC, the causes and effects of environmental racism are comparatively incremental, less concentrated and extended over a greater period of time and thus more difficult to vilify or sympathize with.

One of the reasons that we see so much outrage over the Flint water crisis is that the residents harmed by the toxic water of the Flint River were the most vulnerable–the most low income, and least politically influential. In addition, according to the United States Census Bureau, more than half of the residents of Flint are Black (56%). Last week, Governor Snyder released 247 pages worth of emails relating to Flint’s water crisis. Though the emails themselves make no mention of race, they do…”view things through a political prism, treating some complaints from community representatives as political grandstanding.

In DC, too, it is predominantly and disproportionately low income, Black communities that live at effect to health-endangering environmental conditions. One of the most notable ways in which we see this is through the locations of ‘transfer stations’ throughout the city–a city whose Black-White racial segregation is historically one of the worst in the nation.

What’s the big deal about transfer stations, you ask? Transfer stations exist to move waste from small collection trucks into big trucks for longer-distance hauling. In addition to nuisances like odors, “vectors” (seagulls, rats), and trucks (and their diesel exhaust), transfer stations are also a source of airborne mercury pollution from sources such as broken fluorescent bulbs.

DC’s Department of Public Works (DPW) runs two large transfer stations, in Black communities at Fort Totten and Benning Road. In addition, 15 private transfer stations cropped up in recent years. While most of these private transfer stations have been forced to close because of their disregard for the respective communities, three remain. These three stations are all clustered in Ward 5, in the adjacent black residential neighborhoods of Brentwood and Langdon.

Another factor that explains our disgust over Flint’s water crisis is the frequency and intensity of the resulting health damages over such a concentrated period of time. Though this would certainly fall under the category of the sort of emergency that requires immediate, national-level attention, it is important to note that it is equally damaging to think that incidences in which fewer, less imminent health crises in low-income communities of color are somehow the result of much less corrosive policy.

According to Robin E. Johnson, MD, MPH, author of “Cancer Disparities: An Environmental Justice Issue for Policy Makers”, “Policy makers must address the disparities in the rates of cancers affecting people of color, ethnic minority, and low-income populations…[as]…there is an expanding body of scientific evidence showing the relationship between environmental toxicants and cancer.” He states that “low-income populations and people of color have disproportionately high rates of cancers and are more likely to die or be diagnosed at advanced stages of disease.”

For example, the African-American population has the highest overall rate of cancer and lowest 5-year survival rate cancers. Moreover, African-American men have the highest rate of prostate cancer, and African-American women have the highest mortality rate for breast cancer.

Many of the landfills and incinerators throughout DC are also known to be positioned near prisons and prison communities. Lorton, Virginia was home to DC’s prisons from 1910 until 2001. The youth prison, added to the complex in 1960, is near to the county’s landfill that was located there in 1973. In the early 1980s, another landfill, a private one for construction and demolition waste, opened on the other side of the prison. Just a few years after the youth prison opened, a group of over 50 black Muslim youth inmates rioted, set fires, broke windows and damaged the chapel. In 1985, methane migrating from the county’s landfill entered the plumbing system, causing blasts that killed one inmate and critically burned another, forcing the prison to be quickly evacuated. Inmates were returned after several months, once gas vents were installed. Here, we can see discriminatory policy over the course of many decades–that which culminated incrementally.

Even when not at explosive levels, exposure to the toxins in landfill gas has been found to cause 4-fold increases in bladder cancer and leukemia incidence in women.

Though there is much evidence that points to the pervasiveness of discriminatory environmental policy, there has not been enough–or much at all–in the name of environmental justice–focusing on how the burdens of environmental harms and regulations are allocated among individuals and groups within our society.

According to an analysis by the Center for Public Integrity, “Ninety-five percent of the time, communities of color living in the shadows of polluters find their claims of civil-rights violations denied by the Environmental Protection Agency.”

In addition, in its 22-year history of processing environmental discrimination complaints, the EPA’s Office of Civil Rights has reviewed nearly 300 complaints filed by minority communities. It has never once made a formal finding of a civil-rights violation.

What can you do?

1. Learn more about the causes and effects of environmental racism
– Reccommendation: “Dumping in Dixie: Race, Class, and Environmental Quality” by Robert D. Bullard explains that African American communities are targeted by polluting industries because of their “economic and political vulnerability… and are likely to suffer greater risks from these facilities than are the general population”

2. Attend/testify at the next City Council meeting on Transportation and the Environment, which is this Monday, February 8th at 12 pm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *