Geneseo Environmental Organization and Students Against Social Injustice partnered to host a panel on environmental racism on Thursday Feb. 11 in light of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan.
The discussion included an introduction of the crisis by SASI president junior Sasha Miller, GEO president senior Julia Mizutani and GEO webmaster senior Ty Matsushita, as well as presentations from professor of geological sciences D. Jeffrey Over, associate professor of history Jordan Kleiman and Director of Sustainability Dan DeZarn. According to Mizutani, over 80 attendees were present at the panel.
At the beginning of the discussion, Mizutani defined environmental racism as “a term primarily referring to the disproportionate exposure of ethnic minorities to pollution as a result of poverty and segregation that has relegated many blacks and other racial minorities to some of the most industrialized or dilapidated environments.”
According to Mizutani, residents of Flint were complaining about the water quality months before blood-lead levels were found to have increased in children. Matsushita added that emails gathered by Progress Michigan show that Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder’s office knew about the unsafe water in March 2015, despite Snyder’s claims that he was only informed this past January.
During the presentation, Matsushita also emphasized the impact that the water has had on children in Flint, citing it as a possible cause for the outbreak of Legionnaires’ disease that has affected 87 people, 10 of whom have died.
Miller added that high lead exposure can cause children to perform more poorly academically and can increase cases of Attention Deficit Disorder. She explained that once these children become adults, they are more likely to commit crimes, go to prison and become unemployed or underemployed and dependent on government services.
Following the students’ presentation, Over explained the scientific cause of Flint’s contaminated water. He explained that all pipes are either made of lead or contain a lead solder. According to Over, when Flint stopped receiving water from Detroit, it neglected to add a noncorrosive agent to the water that would prevent it from removing lead from the pipes.
After Over’s presentation, Kleiman discussed the history of environmental racism. He described the first national toxics protest by African-Americans in Warren County, North Carolina in 1982, which occurred after North Carolina Gov. James Hunt attempted to place a massive toxic waste dump in the primarily African-American town of Shocco. The county lost the battle, but Kleiman focused on the idea that out of the struggle came a major push to fight environmental racism.
DeZarn closed the panel with a discussion of similar cases that have happened outside of Flint, including the prevention of a radioactive waste dump in Allegany County, New York, the storage of natural gas and byproducts of fracking at Seneca Lake and the spraying of brine on many roadways in the United States.
“If you can take nothing else away from what I have to say here, I would like to stress that what’s happening in Flint is not an anomaly,” he said. “It’s something that is happening all over the place.”
After the panelists spoke, attendees had the opportunity to ask questions.
Junior Matthew Viglucci asked about how students could get involved in what is happening in Flint and in environmental issues in the Geneseo community. In response, Dezarn urged students to become involved in local government and call politicians and representatives.
Attendee and Coordinator of Residential Education Meg Reitz advocated for student attendance at town meetings.
“There’s also a lot of things that actually do pertain to and impact students’ lives on a daily basis; it’s interesting just to hear the Village and the town talk about it,” she said. “Also, they miss that college voice. They would love to have college students and hear out where you’re coming from because they don’t have your perspective otherwise.”
Mizutani said she hopes that as a result of the panel, attendees now have a better grasp on the many facets involved in the Flint water crisis.
“There is such a strong intersectionality between these topics and these issues that I wanted environmentalists in the room to understand the social justice part,” she said. “But I also wanted people who were heavily involved in social justice issues to understand the environmental aspect of their fight, too.”