Last Wednesday, the Political Science and Pre-Law Association at UTM, with the Society for Geography and Environment, hosted law professor at Wayne State University and special assistant to the attorney general of Michigan, Noah Hall, to discuss the Flint Water Crisis. His lecture was prefaced by an introduction from environmental management professor at UTM, Dr. Andrea Olive. Noah Hall spoke about indicting actors who had a role in the Flint water crisis, along with discussing the crisis in the context of the history behind environmental protection laws.
Hall began with a simple statement: “I hope you care because you’re a human being and so the suffering of human beings is a concern.” He explained, “What we’re seeing in Flint is both telling and representative and perhaps has some lessons, both good and bad, for work in many other areas legally.”
Among other things, he emphasized that this discussion is in the context of environmental justice because “at its core,” the Flint water crisis is “an environmental injustice.” Environmental injustice, Hall described, is the “distributive and procedural injustice of how environmental goods are distributed in society.”
In the early 90s, when Hall began to enter this line of work at the University of Michigan, researchers there were the first to begin documentation on environmental injustice and statistics associated with it. According to Hall, people in academia began to recognize the “reality on the ground that depending on the colour of your skin, the amount of your paycheque, or the value of your house, you were more or less likely to live with pollution, with unsafe air or water or with landfills nearby.”
He paused before stating that, in retrospect, it was “horribly naïve on our part [to think that] if we can just document how inequitably environmental goods and protections are distributed around society, we’ll just fix it.”
“I don’t know what we were thinking because all we were describing is the reality of how most people live, we had this idea that if we could show that there’s a correlation between neighbourhoods that are disproportionately minority with pollution, that people would notice and would solve the problem.”
He reiterated that this was a problem that the government system in the U.S. has never wanted to do much about. He said that his work has “shifted” from simply understanding and documenting environmental injustice to “doing something about it place-by-place as [the injustice occurs] and lean into it and fight it.”
He began the next part of his talk by posing a question to the audience: “Why do we have a persistent problem of environmental injustice in the United States?” and then said pointedly, that it is not a “shortcoming” of the system, but the result of the system “by design.”
As Hall described, it was only after the civil rights and social movements of the 1970s that North America began to address environmental problems. Before that, there was no environmental protection and not much attention toward the creation of environmental laws. The legal system then created this “new public good [environmental protection] which was something the government was going to work to provide to its people,” he said.
“The deal we made with the devil though, which is perhaps now destroying the entire system, was that when we created this good of environmental protection […], we did not create it as a public good that everyone is entitled to, we did not establish it as a constitutional right,” Hall stated, “Instead, it was a new good that would be provided by both the political system and the market.” As Hall explained, this was a problem, because if a new benefit to society is going to be introduced, “we’re going to pile it onto the existing political and economic system […]. We made environmental protection something that had a price tag to it. […] We destined it to be another source of inequity.”
Approaching the subject of Flint, Hall began by explaining that Flint was on the losing end of the global economy and of politics. It has “everything from the typical voter disenfranchisement to all indicators of poverty and sickness” and this “of course, is the type of place where environmental injustice occurs all the time.”
The state of Michigan, which assumed government over the city of Flint, Hall described, meant that citizens were cut out of democratic decision-making and no longer had power in their own communities. Hall added that the city turned into a “fiefdom […] essentially a city where the people of Flint had no recourse, no accountability [and] no voice.”
“If you have a benevolent government, then maybe losing your vote won’t be the end of the world but the reality is that the government by no means had their best interest in mind,” he commented. Flint lost its political voice in 2013 and then again in 2014.
“The way citizens lose their democratic voice in the U.S. is through their economic circumstances.” As Hall elaborated, if you live in a city in the U.S. that is poor, in need of social services, and have lower property values—which may not be because the city is corrupt, but because they simply do not have the resources—you are going to have a difficult time meeting budgets. The lawyer also described, “This is a fake problem to create because once you take a portion of society, isolate them, and make it sound like it is their problem to solve all their issues themselves, they will always come up short. Nobody has all the solutions; this is why we have communities and larger systems.”
“We took these cities, and we isolated them, put a political boundary around them and said they’re broke,” he further emphasized, “They’re broke because of the boundary we put around them. If you gave these cities the resources they needed to provide social services, education, and transportation, they wouldn’t be broke.”
The design, according to Hall, is to turn an imbalanced budget into a loss of political power. “It’s the final step in commodifying democracy, and once you lose the right to vote, then it begins to unravel.”
This is what happened in Flint. Previously, property taxes were invested into running the local government, but soon after, the state started taking property taxes and redirecting them to the general state budget. As expenses of the city of Flint began to accumulate, in 2013, the city “became broke in the eyes of the state,” according to Hall.
“Even the term broke city is a construct that was created […]. Poverty isn’t something that just happens, it is the result of decisions [at the state level],” Hall added that this law that allowed states taking over cities was even challenged successfully in Michigan. They voted down the law and the next day, the legislature “re-enacted the law […] which means it is no longer subject to a citizen repeal.”
The voice of its population was completely disregarded and the city of Flint’s water source was switched from Lake Huron to Flint river. The river, as Hall described, “was not bad […] but not great,” he said, “From an environmental dude’s perspective, the blame is not on the Flint river. We could absolutely have taken that river, [treated it] and made it clean, safe drinking water.”
The city of Flint, Hall mentioned, is surrounded by ten largely affluent suburbs, and the new water treatment plant for them cost $75 million. For the city itself, however, the state took an old building that had been there for 102 years and had “written on the outside of it: Water treatment plant and that’s as much of a water treatment plant as it really was. It made this room look good,” he said motioning to Spigel Hall. The plant had not been used to treat water in 50 years, but Hall said, “They opened it back up […] in an attempt to meet the most basic drinking water requirements” and began sending it out to the citizens.
The citizens immediately began to see problems and gathered in town halls, where they collected water samples and notified the media. “It did not work,” Hall shook his head.
The first people who were affected, the first who noticed and the first who wanted to do something about it, Hall mentioned, were black folks. However, he said, they were also the first people the government disregarded. “Perhaps the ugliest telling of it was that in hundreds of emails from the state government, they referred to the complaining citizens of Flint as the brown water people,” Hall said this twice to emphasize the underlying implications of that label. “Once you have a label for it, it’s real easy to undermine and ignore.”
The next levels of citizens in Flint disenfranchised by the government were women. “In the case of environmental injustice, […] women tend to be on the front line of both the harm of environmental problems and the first folks who see the effects,” said Hall, mentioning how almost all of the citizen activists were women. But essentially, in the emails, he added, the “language used to demoralize, cabin, degrade the concerns of women is disgusting.” He stated that they used labels like hysterical and uninformed,. “Essentially saying what you’re experiencing, seeing with your eyes and tasting and smelling, doesn’t count. You don’t count and you don’t deserve any better.”
“There’s also a professional bias throughout all this. The environmental law […] has clothed itself so much that we’ve become arrogant in effect that until we see statistics or concrete data, we disregard the problem. We completely ignore the experience of other people who are being affected. […] In universities, we teach our students to almost ignore the individual human elements, try to see the big picture […] but somewhere, then, we must have lost our way, right?” He mused, “If the system’s not doing what it needs to do for the people who are most affected, then it’s not working.”
“They did it all, and then you see how the state, by design, discredits every aspect of it.” One interesting fact he brought up is that when he went through the emails on Flint, most of the response from the state was driven by the state’s public relations people. “The folks who are making the decisions are not policy makers, they’re state’s press secretaries.” At the end of the day, “What’s their goal? It’s not to protect public health. It’s not to enforce the environmental laws. It’s certainly not to acknowledge that there is a problem or an injustice occurring. They have every incentive to say things are great.”
How did this happen and why does environmental injustice perpetuate and get worse? As Hall answered, “The phrase is cost-benefit analysis […]. The government, in providing services on a limited budget, probably also needs to use cost benefit analysis to make sure that what you’re spending money on makes sense but then the system goes off the rails when it has to protect human life, because in order to do a cost benefit analysis involving people’s lives, you have to put a dollar value on people.”
The second problem, he said, is the “reality of how America developed.” The U.S. has “tremendous segregation, physically […]. It’s blatantly obvious. There’s a black side and a white side.” Along with divisions in cities, there is also a political line in between, in which “conveniently, on one side are the poor and the minorities, and on the other side are the wealthy and white, and that is by design.” This is what occurred in the city of Flint, a city of 100,000 people surrounded by the ten wealthy townships, which meant “they get different water of course, because by piling the environmental protection system onto a local government system that is segregated, you’re going to get segregated unjust outcomes of environmental law.”
When the state switched Flint from Lake Huron water to Flint River water, Hall elaborated, it did not spend the $80 million that the state’s experts and consultants said you needed to spend on water treatment plants.
“As a lawyer, I need to do a better job of explaining to a judge or jury why this is so culpable […]. They knew what they were doing in Flint which is way too easy to do when you have segregated communities.”
The third reason that persists, he explained, is “within the environmental movement itself.” There are three main biases within the environmental movement that were specific to Flint and that caused the movement to essentially “ignore Flint for a year-and-a-half.” The implication is, as Hall emphasized, that being poisoned by lead water for 18 months meant the person is “ruined, their brain will never be the same again.” The World Health Organization’s fact sheet for lead poisoning and health, updated August 2017, states, “At high levels of exposure, lead attacks the brain and central nervous system to cause coma, convulsions and even death. Children who survive severe lead poisoning may be left with mental retardation and behavioral disorders.”
The second one is the racial bias which is “absolutely huge,” as Hall said. The environmental movement in the US “has a tremendous racist history that has yet to be resolved, and if we don’t fix it, the environmental movement is going to lose whatever remaining moral credibility it has, because if it’s not speaking for everyone, what good is it?” This includes disregarding environmental issues that affects minorities.
The third bias is that the environmental movement doesn’t think about the types of pollutions and harms that affect the people in their more “mundane and daily lives, such as indoor air quality, drinking water quality […]. We like to pretend within environmentalism that there’s a natural world out there, like a river we’re going to make clean. And whether you’re breathing clean air or being exposed to toxins in your home, the environment has largely been second-tiered. This is a tremendous strategic flaw, because you need to know that the air in your homes isn’t giving you lung disease.” It becomes easy to disregard the individual because they’re focused on trying to “make the whole system better.”
He ended this portion of his talk by stating, “Once you see someone ignoring a problem, it becomes easy for the next person to disregard it. All of us could’ve seen what was happening in Flint and done something about it. How did we ignore this? It’s even worse when the so-called professionals say the water is fine and that makes it okay for us to ignore it, which of course, it is not.”
Following this talk, there was a confidential portion concerning ongoing investigations, which The Medium was asked not to cover.