Lessons learned from Flint's lead poisoning experience; Greater equity awareness leads some groups to take a stronger stance.
In 2017 I ran into Noah Hall at a Great Lakes conference in Chicago. Hall is an environmental law professor at Wayne State University in Detroit and is widely known for his legal and policy expertise on water issues.
I talked with Hall in what was an impromptu conversation in a corridor before he made a presentation. The conversation turned to the Flint water crisis and he talked about how, in general, mainstream environmental groups and others said little to nothing about Flint’s situation.
Curious, I asked if he would speak to the issue on the record in an interview. He agreed and started by saying “absolutely, the environmental community has a lot of looking in the mirror to do on their own shortcomings on the Flint water crisis.” The interview is here, four minutes.
Hall’s comments echoed my experience with environmental groups during the Flint crisis. I tried to see how the groups saw it and got either no response or a vague, that's not in our area of expertise comment.
Fast forward to the current Benton Harbor drinking water crisis, which looks a lot like Flint’s where petitioners have asked the EPA to use its emergency authority to intervene in Michigan. EPA has said it is reviewing the request.
I asked a select group of well-known environmental groups for a statement and if they supported the request for emergency intervention by the U.S. EPA.
Here is an edited version of their responses.
Michigan Environmental Council, Charlotte Jameson Chief Policy Officer
"We proudly stand by and support the Benton Harbor Community Water Council's petition to the EPA. The state has known about lead-laden drinking water in Benton Harbor for several years, but has yet to recognize the situation as the environmental justice crisis it is. No amount of lead is safe, and we need an immediate and robust response that matches the severity this situation is to city residents.”
Jameson also called on Michigan and Gov. Gretchen Whitmer to extend emergency water resources to the community while waiting for the EPA response.
National Wildlife Federation, Mike Shriberg, regional Executive Director Great Lakes Regional Center
“The National Wildlife Federation strongly supports the citizens of Benton Harbor and believes that the U.S. EPA and state of Michigan need to provide residents with clean, safe water now, as well as a plan to remove lead-based pipes immediately.”
Alliance for the Great Lakes, Joel Brammeier, CEO and President
“We support the petitioners’ demands for emergency action to keep the people of Benton Harbor safe. As residents and the science have demonstrated for several years, drinking water in the community is unsafe and lead service lines should be replaced without delay.”
Brammeier emphasized the importance of equity and said “race and wealth should not be determining factors in access to safe, clean and affordable Great Lakes drinking water.”
The Nature Conservancy in Michigan, Rich Bowman, Policy Director
Bowman said the emergency petition to intervene is a “legal process question” and as he isn’t a lawyer, he didn’t comment on the petition.
Bowman said with the likelihood of federal funding in the picture “that the resources will be available to address this issue and I genuinely believe (Michigan’s) Department of Environment Great Lakes and Energy and the city want to address this.”
“I suspect the bigger challenge for the agency was not a desire to address it, but a recognition that Benton Harbor isn’t the only community facing this issue and any financial assistance provided to them by the State establishes a precedent that the State has to provide the same type of assistance to all communities with this problem,” Bowman said.
Environmental Law and Policy Center, Chicago
Spokesperson Judith Nemes said “we’re not engaged here and wouldn’t have anything specific enough to say.” ELPC has an office in Grand Rapids.
A list of groups who signed the petition to the EPA which includes Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, Great Lakes Environmental Law Center and For Love of Water, is here.
Chicago-based environmental journalist