Flint water crisis is classic case of environmental racism
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By now, it is clear the tragedy in Flint, Mich. was completely preventable. In order to save money in the short term, the city decided to switch its water supply. As a result, thousands of Flint residents were exposed to lead and the clean-up, litigation and health costs will far outweigh any savings the city saw.

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The demographics of the community raise issues of whether the community is suffering from the impact of environmental racism. The population of Flint is majority African-American and 40 percent of its residents live below the poverty line. In fact, despite the governor's protest, Flint is a classic case of environmental racism — and it isn't the first time the city has suffered this fate.

Environmental racism is the deliberate placing of hazardous waste and polluting industries near communities of color. In 1987, a comprehensive report found that race was the No. 1 factor in the siting of commercial hazardous waste facilities. A follow-up study 20 years later found racial disparities in hazardous waste siting were even greater than previously reported. The updated study found people of color made up the majority of those living less than two miles from hazardous waste facilities.

For decades, the residents of Flint have borne a disproportionate environmental burden, so much so that they have brought administrative complaints alleging that the amount of pollution residents faced violated their civil rights. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), like every federal agency, must abide by Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and ensure recipients of federal aid do not discriminate on the basis of race, color or national origin. Title VI violations can occur if state environmental agencies, for example, permit hazardous and/or polluting industries disproportionately in communities of color. If a community feels Title VI has been violated, they can file an administrative complaint with the EPA's Office of Civil Rights.

Flint has a long history of advocates fighting against environmental racism. In 1997, the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality granted an air permit to the Select Steel "mini-mill" to operate in Flint, even though the mill would send up to 100 tons of lead and other hazardous pollutants into the city's air every year. Residents were already dealing with pollution from the nearby Genesee Power Station when the Select Steel permit was granted. Advocates in Flint had filed administrative complaints with the EPA for Title VI violations against the Genesee Power Station in 1994. The EPA never responded and the power station started operating in 1995.

Flint residents didn't fare any better with the Select Steel case. The EPA found that Select Steel's permit did not violate Title VI and ruled that environmental regulations trumped civil rights protections, even though the two have separate standards. The ruling contradicted the Department of Justice's interpretation that civil rights laws are independent and compliance should be evaluated with anti-discrimination requirements. In the end, the mini-mill was never built but the EPA's ruling created a precedent that still stands.

The fact that the EPA issued a decision, in and of itself, is rare. The vast majority of administrative complaints received by the EPA are either rejected or dismissed. An in-depth investigation last year by the Center for Public Integrity found that in nearly 300 complaints filed by communities of color, the EPA has never once made a formal finding of a civil-rights violation. On average, it takes the EPA's Office of Civil Rights 350 days to decide just on whether to investigate a case — so long that investigators dismissed nine cases as moot. The EPA's own review of its Office of Civil Rights was highly critical and found poor performance, unqualified staff and a lack of prioritization.

The current environmental crisis in Flint was caused by failure at many levels of government, including the EPA's Office of Civil Rights. Any solution must include an overhaul and new mandate for Title VI complaints. It's time for the EPA to step up and enforce its duty to protect communities of color.

Cha is a fellow at Cornell University's Worker Institute.