Flint manslaughter charges  — Why we can’t roll back EPA protections
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Scott Pruitt, administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency, was already in for a tough day Thursday. Slated to appear before the House Appropriations Committee, supporting a 31 percent budget cut for the EPA, he was preparing to defend the indefensible.

Then his day got even harder. 

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Prosecutors charged five Michigan state officials linked to the Flint water crisis, including the head of the state’s health department, with involuntary manslaughter for failing to issue public warnings about the lead contaminated water supply.

 

This undermines one of Pruitt’s core arguments — states can pick up the slack left by the administration’s draconian proposed cuts. These cuts would devastate environmental clean-up programs like EPA’s Superfund, tasked with cleaning the country’s most contaminated land. It would significantly scale back enforcement of existing environmental regulation and decrease staffing.

This would result in a protection vacuum that, as evidenced by charges filed in Flint, state programs are simply unable to fill. Pruitt is in the unenviable position of arguing that the secret to fixing a resource deficit lies in further cutting those resources. 

State environmental programs are already underfunded and under-resourced. Lower levels of

federal help, regulation and enforcement will be catastrophic for public health. And, unfortunately, the communities hit hardest will be underserved, low-income, communities of color. The cuts will leave them with no legal recourse to address this structural inequality.

Communities of color are significantly more likely to be situated next to industrial facilities like smelters and other sources of toxic pollutants. As a result, people of color are disproportionately impacted by these environmental crises, which typically occur in places with large racial minority populations like Flint and East Chicago.

To add insult to injury, the proposed budget cuts would completely defund the environmental justice office, meant to ensure that regulations are applied equally regardless of the racial composition of communities. The environmental justice office also funds grants to help communities of color respond and rehabilitate when toxins are found in their neighborhoods. The proposed cuts will make it more difficult to protect against environmental concerns, to detect and identify problems early, and to intervene and perform clean-ups once they are identified.

These proposals are not happening in a vacuum, and there is another fight that can potentially have a huge impact on this one. If the Affordable Care Act is repealed, the crisis will worsen. Among other devastating provisions, the House GOP replacement plan the American Health Care Act would decimate Medicaid programs by transforming it to a block grant program, drastically reducing its funding and the number of people it can cover. Children make up about half of the Medicaid population, which means this legislation could potentially leave millions of children uninsured.

Medicaid currently requires and pays for blood lead testing for all children at 12 and 24 months. If the American Health Care Act is passed, millions of uninsured children and parents will be unable to get this crucial screening, which identifies a serious environmental toxin early. The risk of lead poisoning will rise, the rate of insurance will plummet and families’ recourse within the federal government will disappear. 

We would all like to believe that the contamination experienced in Flint is rare. The sad reality is otherwise. Communities across the country are dealing with environmental crises just like it. The federal government must be equipped to step in. Yesterday’s manslaughter charges against Michigan officials prove that state governments can not always do so.

Another Flint will happen. It may be happening now. But next time, the EPA may be too underfunded to help. If the EPA cannot assist with clean up, or offer an environmental justice office to address structural racism, and the children in the community can no longer rely on Medicaid-funded blood screenings — prosecutors may look beyond the state government to hold parties responsible.  

Maya Rupert is senior director for policy at the Center for Reproductive Rights. She is a Public Voices Fellow of The OpEd Project. Follow her on Twitter @MayaRupert


The views expressed by contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.