Environmental Justice Means We Stand With Vulnerable Communities

Environmental injustice and environmental racism are not new phenomena, and yet the scandal in Flint, Michigan shocked so many. As a result of the outrage in Flint, the Natural Resources Defense Council issued a report, What's in Your Water? Flint and Beyond, that noted Flint was not an isolated case. The reported highlighted that more than 5,300 local water systems are in violation of EPA's regulations, and states took action in 817 cases while EPA took up only 88.

One of the report's recommendations:

Address environmental injustice, allowing local communities who bear a disproportionate burden of polluted water to participate in developing solutions to drinking water infrastructure challenges.

This recommendation begs the question: where is the environmental movement in the face of all this injustice?

Yet, in 2016, in the richest country in the world, we are failing our neighbors by ignoring or not addressing the issue of clean water or environmental injustice issues. Rarely is there a larger meaningful policy discussion about these issues until it's a scandal or an outrage like Flint. While we can point fingers at every level of government, and we can argue about the enforcement of existing laws, or the jurisdictional issues that always comes into play between local, state, and federal officials, but what's worse about issues like this, are the numerous complaints that the regulators were complacent.

There is a perception that for too long there has been a cozy, compliant relationship with local authorities and federal officials and that perception has been exacerbated by the situation in Flint. The question for most laypeople is, how does this happen? One example of this cozy relationship is that federal regulators have allowed local and state regulators to use testing methods that allow them to cheat detection of lead above the legal limits. Case in point is the class-action lawsuit has been filed against the City of Philadelphia over this practice.

When regulators fail to do their jobs, community members and activists must be there to hold them accountable. But when over five thousand communities are being poisoned for years, and the authorities have gotten away with it all this time, the environmental movement must be introspective about our roles in standing up for unserved communities.

A small activist group in Puerto Rico, Puerto Rico Limpio, has been leading the charge on what many have called the next Flint. For more than a year, the organization has been protesting about municipal landfills in the territory, with local residents complaining that toxic materials were poisoning the water and ground in their neighborhoods for decades and the authorities have yet to do anything about it. Their protest reminds me of similar local activism in my own community in Warren County, when I was a state appointed official.

Local residents from poor and underserved communities who face terrible threats from big utilities and lax regulators should not have to come begging for our help. We, those who care for the poor, the environment, and injustice, should be shoulder to shoulder with these communities from the beginning, embracing their agenda as our own and fighting the injustice of unequal protection from our government.

Injustice is interconnected in vulnerable communities. It is usually the same voiceless, vulnerable communities where toxic landfills are never forced to comply with the law, where the drinking water is poisoned with lead for years without accountability, where schools are failing from the lack of funding, where police killings occur, and where children go to bed hungry at night. When we fail to fight one injustice, we often fail to overcome any of them. It's time the environmental movement revitalize its commitment to justice as a core component of its mission, or millions of vulnerable Americans, usually in communities of color, will be fighting alone against a system that is ignoring their health and safety with impunity. It's certainly time for federal regulators at the Environmental Protection Agency to intervene in Puerto Rico, we cannot afford the lack of accountability to pave the way for the next environmental injustice issue.