"Let's Talk: Environmental Injustice"

Like most Americans, these days I find it hard to shake the feeling that our democracy has gone completely astray from its professed ideals. As a young person, politics always seemed a bit too abstract and removed–at best, like a roomful of grownups who got to make all the decisions or at worst, a handful of insiders who got to exploit the system. In any case, it didn’t have a place for me. I got the emails, read the headlines, and heard the talking points of mainstream news outlets, but politics always seemed petty and chronically ineffective. It’s not that I didn’t care. But the gaping chasm between the magnitude of our challenges and the smallness of our politics seemed irreconcilable.

That all changed in 2016. When the story of Flint’s Water Crisis broke out, it was impossible for me to ignore one of the most egregious examples of injustice I had ever read about. I couldn’t look away. For weeks, this little city in the midwest gnawed at my consciousness and overpowered any sense of apathy. I poured over stories, articles and witness testimonies. It was clear that long before the story reached national attention, Flint was a wounded city. A once thriving, manufacturing hub, now only rows of vacant homes, boarded-up storefronts and one of the nation’s highest violent crime rates. Its water crisis was embedded within the city’s long- standing struggles related to race, housing, socioeconomic status, unemployment, education inequity and exposure to toxins. I saw a city begging for their representatives to care. That very moment, I saw that the personal was indeed political.

So, when I had read this morning that once CEO-turned-governor, Rick Snyder, decided to publicly voice his support and endorse Biden, I was in utter disbelief. In a baffling op-ed in USA Today, this clown–who is criminally responsible for the catastrophe that is the Flint Water Crisis–literally writes, “President Trump lacks a moral compass” and “ignores the truth” about “facts and science.” What’s more, to my horror, Biden’s giddy campaign touts his endorsement in a sad and pathetic attempt to win over Michigan’s GOP, completely forsaking his own base in Flint–the same district that failed to show up for Hilary in 2016, the same disenfranchised voters that essentially handed the victory to Trump.

So what makes Rick Snyder public enemy #1? According to the National Resources Defense Council, the Water Crisis began as a profit-motivated decision to privatize Flint’s water supply. Then-governor, Rick Snyder, stripped Flint of its local austerity and replaced them with political cronies. Not accountable to nor elected by the community, they were responsible for making municipal decisions, including the decision to switch Flint’s water supply. So while Michigan provided 20% of the world’s freshwater, they still decided to switch to the Flint River, a cesspool of industrial sewage and toxic dump. Immediately, residents noticed the difference. The water they consumed daily–once funneled in from Lake Huron, a 10,000 year-old pure glacial lake–had turned foul, murky and discolored.

Any public opposition was routinely and vehemently dismissed by city officials, including Snyder. Residents were exposed to e.coli, cancerous chemicals, fecal matter and lead. It took city officials over two years to officially acknowledge the contaminated status of the water. When they finally did, it was too late– residents of Flint were already feeling the physical, emotional and mental effects synonymous with toxic poisoning. Their hair started to fall out. Skin rashes appeared all over their bodies. It impacted children’s behavior–increasing the likelihood of things such as violence, impulsivity and A.D.H.D. Rapidly dropping IQ levels in toddlers signified more children who would need special education services. Twelve citizens lost their lives to Legionnaires' Disease, one of the highest outbreaks in the country. The greatest irony? To properly treat the water, it would only have cost a measly $80-$100 a day.

And meanwhile, when news broke out that the toxic water was corroding auto parts of the General Motors factory, a big-money donor that helped elect candidates such as himself, Snyder immediately ordered the water in Flint to be switched back. But only for General Motors. The people of Flint would have to continue to drink the poisoned water.

When these pieces build, one on the other, it paints a disturbing portrait of the American political landscape. The evidence that surrounds instances of environmental injustice demonstrate that Flint is not the exception, it is the rule: many other pockets of marginalized communities experience similar struggles for clean water, resources and environmental justice. Unless Biden’s campaign does some much needed soul-searching or gives even the slightest admission of responsibility by publicly denouncing Snyder’s endorsement, we are on a sinking ship. It will be a disaster that forever corrodes public faith in official government institutions and leaves a permanent stain on democracy. At that point, it will be impossible to redeem.

With love,
Ashleigh

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