Let’s take a quick mental field trip. Imagine, after a long, sweaty trek home from work or school, you trod into your kitchen for a glass of water. Over to the sink. Faucet on. Glass filled. Instead of the clear, fresh, and welcoming water you are used to (and probably take for granted-big time), it’s a brown-tinged, murky liquid. It’s not only disturbing to look at, but it is incredibly unsafe to drink. This is what citizens of Flint, Michigan, are currently faced with. A Google image search of “Flint water” turns up a multitude of images: bathtubs filled with water the color of rust, bottles of liquid that resemble a highly, probably medically, dehydrated person’s urine, and activists holding up glasses of their own tainted H20.
With the city’s switch to a cheaper, and more polluted, water source in April 2014, residents soon began complaining about the new water’s repugnant odor, odd color, and unusual health effects. After approximately 21 MONTHS (!!!) of dismissed complaints, failed governmental investigations and actions, and an entire city’s exposure and ingestion of now-proven lead contaminated water has the Michigan and federal government begun to take some course of serious action. After months of complaints, state officials indecisively declared Flint’s water a major public health emergency due to the abnormally high amount of lead found in the city’s tap water. A top aide to Michigan’s governor Rick Snyder even dubbed the complainers part of an “anti-everything group” (lol- what?). Even the smallest amount of lead can lead to long-term health and developmental problems in children (city officials now claim there is no way of knowing how many children will be affected by this).
Water: Life’s most basic necessity. Government: Those we trust and give power, albeit a power that is intended to be checked and righted under our democratic system. The grim situation in Flint is yet another striking example of the people who rely most on public services being neglected by public servants.
Many could argue that well before Flint residents had to worry about lead-laced, grimy water, there was a sinister system set in place which allowed for this situation to occur. Environmental racism was a term coined in the 1980s referring to the disproportionate exposure of minority communities to polluted air, water, and soil. It is considered the result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments. These communities are stuck in a pollution-ridden nexus between environmental and social justice concerns and are not as uncommon as one might think. “Cancer alley” consists of over 30 industrial plants in the mostly black, rural community of Mossville, Louisiana. High levels of human carcinogens have been found to be produced by the industries, correlating with residents who contract the disease at a disturbingly higher rate than normal (normal as in mostly white cities that lack such ruinous neighbors). And of course, there’s the belief that the institutionalized racial segregation of neighborhoods in New Orleans exacerbated the fateful outcome of Hurricane Katrina, along with the government’s notoriously slow response time to the lowest-lying communities. Environmental racism is not uncommon, but often both consciously and ignorantly overlooked by its perpetuators or those bearing witness.
Like Flint, lower economic communities are consistently exploited to the advantage of industries and idealistic governments. Since these communities often lack the political clout needed to stop many sources of industrial pollution and environmental degradation, they are continually forced into becoming innocent victims of the destructive effects left behind. As I scroll through images of bright, energetic elementary school students lined up to have their fingers pricked and blood taken to test for lead, the consequences of a failed government, governor, and the many factors at fault for this crisis become heartbreakingly real.