By Julie Bosman, nytimes.com
An independent panel has concluded that disregard for the concerns of poor and minority people contributed to the government’s slow response to complaints from residents of Flint, Mich., about the foul and discolored water that was making them sick, determining that the crisis “is a story of government failure, intransigence, unpreparedness, delay, inaction and environmental injustice.”
The panel, which was appointed by Gov. Rick Snyder in October, when he first urged Flint’s nearly 100,000 residents to stop drinking the city’s tap water, laid blame for the water problems at the feet of government employees on every level.
Its report was released at a news conference Wednesday in Flint.
It particularly focused on state employees: analysts in charge of supervising water quality, state-appointed emergency managers who prized frugality over public safety, and staff members in the governor’s office who adopted a “whack a mole” attitude to beat away persistent reports of problems.
But the report also concluded that, “The facts of the Flint water crisis lead us to the inescapable conclusion that this is a case of environmental injustice.”
In making that declaration, the five-member panel put a spotlight on a long-running civil rights issue: whether minorities and the poor are treated differently when it comes to environmental matters, relegating them to some of the most dangerous places in the country: flood prone areas of New Orleans that were devastated after Hurricane Katrina; highly polluted parts of Detroit and the Bronx; and “Cancer Alley” in Louisiana, where residents who live near factories suffer disproportionately from disease.
It also validated complaints long argued by many Flint residents but largely dismissed by Mr. Snyder and others: that race and poverty contributed to the often scornful reactions to their complaints.
“Flint residents, who are majority black or African-American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities,” the report concluded.
In an interview after the report’s release, Ken Sikkema, a panel member and former state legislator, said the panel sought to raise a general alarm about the role of race and income, and to highlight inequities that may emerge in environmental responses.
“It needed to be addressed,” Mr. Sikkema said. “It’s not just race, it’s income status, too. Low-income people shouldn’t be subject to a different level of environmental protection than high-income people.”
Representative Dan Kildee, a Democrat whose district includes Flint, said he welcomed the panel’s pointed attention to the issue. “It’s certainly true from my perspective,” he said. “I could not imagine this happening in an affluent community that was not a majority-minority community and the same reaction occurring.”
Many of the panel’s other findings reiterated facts and ideas that had emerged in thousands of pages of documents, and several congressional hearings, about bureaucratic indifference and mistakes that not only caused the crisis but prolonged it. More investigations are continuing, with the possibility of criminal charges, and the report notes that other investigators with subpoena powers might unearth even more egregious information.
The 116-page report faulted local Flint officials and an overly deferential federal Environmental Protection Agency, and concluded that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, the state agency responsible for monitoring the water supply, had “primary responsibility for the water contamination in Flint.” That agency, it said, “caused this crisis to happen.”