Communities of color often share their neighborhoods with belching smokestacks, toxic waste dumps and polluting factories. The federal government has long ignored the commonplace environmental racism of building these dangerous facilities in minority communities.
Local community groups, environmental advocates and academics have charged for decades that the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has turned a blind eye to the disproportionate placement of industrial polluters in low-income and minority neighborhoods. A case in Flint, Michigan has crystalized this widespread environmental injustice. On the last full day of the Obama administration, the EPA finally admitted what the environmental justice movement has long known, that the siting of a polluting power plant in Flint was discriminatory. It was a civil rights case that dated back a quarter century.
In 1992, the Genesee Power Station first applied for a permit to build and operate a wood-burning incinerator in a predominantly low-income and African-American community in Flint. Residents promptly filed an environmental civil rights complaint with the EPA, citing concerns over the local release of toxic pollutants as well as racial discrimination and the use of intimidation tactics during Michigan’s public hearings on the proposed power plant.
The Reverend Philip Schmitter, who was part of the Genesee complaint from the beginning, said it was clear that Michigan was discriminating against black residents and believes that if the EPA had taken action earlier, the city's ongoing lead drinking water crisis may have been avoided. The EPA’s finding of environmental racism in the Genesee complaint references Michigan’s admitted failure to provide Flint’s African-American residents the “same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities” in the water crisis.
Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits anyone receiving federal funds (including state environmental agencies) from discriminating based on race, color, religion, sex or national origin. EPA has been strikingly slow in enforcing the law — the Genesee case is only the second finding of discrimination ever since 2011. A 2016 U.S. Commission on Civil Rights report found that the EPA dismissed 90 percent of all complaints and routinely missed regulatory deadlines by years.
Three decades and nearly 300 complaints later, the EPA’s indifferent and even callous lack of enforcement has left low-income and minority populations without redress for the disproportionately high levels of pollution in their communities. The Genesee complaint in particular was part of an unreasonable delay lawsuit filed by Earthjustice in 2015 on behalf of Flint and four other communities to force EPA action on their cases, which have been unresolved for over a decade despite a legally required 180-day deadline.
After 25 years, the EPA finally unequivocally stated that there is a “preponderance of evidence” in the Genesee case showing that Michigan engaged in discrimination “that resulted in African Americans being treated differently and less favorably than Whites.” This unambiguous finding took far, far too long and was filed just as the Obama administration walked out the door. Going forward, the pro-polluter Trump administration is unlikely to address the rest of the EPA’s backlog of unresolved civil rights cases.
The environmental justice movement fights to achieve equal pollution protection and equal public participation, but it will be an even harder fight now. Food & Water Watch will continue to stand with communities fighting back against environmental injustices – from toxic water in Flint to mass water shutoffs in Detroit to the state takeover to forced water privatization in Atlantic City. We won’t back down.