Clean Water, Environmental Justice: Lessons From Flint Water Crisis

Professor Mary Jane Angelo, director for the Environmental and Land Use Law Program, facilitated the discussion on the Flint water crisis.

The Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations at the University of Florida Levin College of Law presented its second speaker for “Race Matters in The News,” a series of conversations on intersectional race-related issues, on Monday afternoon.

Professor Mary Jane Angelo, director of the Environmental and Land Use Law Program reviewed a timeline of the Flint, Michigan, water crisis. She expanded on events as they unfolded and the legal issues that preceded it.

Professor Mary Jane Angelo, director for the Environmental and Land Use Law Program, facilitated the discussion on the Flint water crisis. This is the second event this semester for the Race Matters in the News series hosted by the UF Center for the Study of Race and Race Relations.

In 2011, the city of Flint declared a financial emergency and began attempting to cut costs. In April 2014, the city switched its water supply from Lake Huron to Flint River. The river was known to contain corrosive contaminates, yet the city opted not to treat the water with anti-corrosive agents in effort to save additional costs, Angelo explained.

These contaminates eroded the cities aged water distribution system, which consisted of iron and lead pipes, and introduced toxic amounts of lead into the drinking water.

“Widespread lack in clean drinking water mostly affects communities of color,” Angelo said.

In the city of Flint, 57 percent of the population is African-American, and 41 percent live below the poverty line. Yet, at the time of the crisis, they were paying the highest water rates in the country, according to Angelo.

The switch in the Flint water began showing levels of lead contamination ranging from 158-13,000 ppb (parts per billion).

“[These levels are] 100-1,000 time higher than the EPA’s action-level of 15 ppb,” Angelo said. “Eighty-seven people contracted legionnaires disease and twelve died. Fifteen [state and local officials] are facing criminal charges, and five have been charged with manslaughter.”

Angelo said that Florida is second to Texas in populations exposed to unclean drinking water.

“Flint is an extreme case,” she said, “but is not alone.”

After outlining the current state of the issue, Professor Angelo covered the takeaways and possible solutions.

“The Clean Water Act only covers a small number of contaminants,” Angelo said. “These should be expanded and should include things like the harmful algae in Florida.”

However, $36 million in cuts to the enforcement of the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) – coupled with $16 million to be cut from the enforcement of the Clean Water Act (CWA) – impede these and other processes.

Students were shocked to hear Florida was second to Texas in exposing its residents to contaminated drinking water. “Flint is an extreme case, but is not alone,” Angelo said.

“Prior to these proposed cuts, 18 percent of reported violations were being enforced [by the EPA],” Angelo said.

The professor concluded by taking questions from the audience. Questions ranged from the status of the criminal charges to the effectivity of the CWA and SDWA.

“Even the most progressive systems are running into issues and widely recognize that we will not have [enough] water in 20 years if we continue with current patterns of use,” said Angelo when asked to contrast the water crisis with global water shortage trends. “This is exacerbated by climate change.”

Contributing Author: Matthew Hoisington

Matthew Hoisington is currently a 1L at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. He graduated from the University of Central Florida majoring in Political Science and minoring in Philosophy in Fall of 2013. In his down time he lifts weights, listens to podcasts and cares for his aged dog and life-long companion, Swede.