Water: the heart of Environmental Justice

Environmental justice is not a new idea but it is one gaining ground in mainstream media and consciousness.

Environmental justice refers to a number of connected ideas. Access and ownership of natural resources. Equitable burden sharing from environmental damage.

Writing from an Irish prospective it’s impossible to ignore the influence the Irish Water campaign has held in public attention. So much of Ireland’s water supply is poorly managed and yet in a country famous for its wet people were enraged at the idea of paying for water. This was compounded when millions of euros were spent on the setting up of the semi-state body to manage water charges which, some argued, could have been spent by existing agencies and the Local Area Authorities to improve water services. Even after their set up, they were found unwilling to really improve water quality.

Image result for irish water

Ultimately, Irish Water Protests, were about much more than whether the state should have a dedicated charge for water. It became as much about a sense of ownership over natural resources as it was a reaction to austerity politics.

Ownership, and respect, is a recurring theme in environmental justice.

Dakota Access Pipeline

The Dakota Access Pipeline is planned to cut under the Missouri River near the Standing Rock Reservation in North Dakota. Hundreds of pipeline leaks have occurred in the Dakotas and a DAPL leak would contaminate the Missouri River. The Missouri River is the longest river in North America and is the source of drinking water for 18 million people.

Protests have been ongoing since April. Al Jeezra’s The Stream talks to Dave Archambault II (Chairman, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe), other activists from the encampment that has developed on site, as well as those in support of the pipeline. It gives a lot of wider background to that issue.

“Dallas Goldtooth, a spokesman for the Indigenous Environmental Network, recently told Al Jazeera that spillage from the pipeline would be inevitable.

“It’s not a matter of if a pipeline spills, but when a pipeline spills. You have significant risk to a vast amount of drinking water supplied to North Dakota, South Dakota, Iowa … all the way down.” 

Tribal officials also fear the underground passage would break federal laws under the National Historic Preservation Act that protect sacred prayer and burial sites.

Image result for water defenders standing rock

Flint Water Crisis

Flint, Michigan is African-American city where approximately 40% of residents live below the poverty line. The city has among the highest water charges in the US.

In April 2014 the city of Flint changed its water source from the Detroit Water and Sewage Department to the Flint river. This decision was made by then state-appointed emergency manager, Ed Kurtz, and the governor’s office.

Official bodies were aware of the problems but continued to fail to inform the public. Five months after the water supply switch there were boil notices issued to the public due to high levels of bacteria in the water and General Motors (GM) changed the water supply for their Flint factory in October 2014 due to corrosion concerns effecting their manufacturing.

Civil engineer, Marc Edwards, was on-site with his team in Flint testing the water and identified that it was unsafe but he was ignored or dismissed by the EPA and the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, who accused him of trying to make a professional name for himself. Despite this, it was not until January 2nd 2015, a Friday after the New Year’s holiday, that a city notice was released admitting to carcinogenic chemicals (THMs) in the water .

The water supply was not changed back to the Detroit system until October 2015 by which time the people of Flint had experienced serious health issues associated with the pollution, especially lead poisoning among children as a result of the corrosive effects on the pipes meant that the lead content remained high after the return to Detroit water. Mona Hanna-Attisha, a doctor working in Flint, studied the lead levels in the blood of Flint children found that lead poisoning through water disproportionately affect children and pregnant women which can lead to lifelong developmental issues.

Today the community in Flint still has a very low level of trust in government and in the EPA as a result of these events. This mistrust spread beyond Flint as the story received wider media attention and polls suggest that following the Flint crisis half of Americans are not confident in the safety of their tap water. There is a trend that working class and predominately African-American residential areas are disproportionately chosen for industries or activities that are hazardous to the environment or public health. Work to replace pipes and install filters is still on going; with the result that Flint is still experiencing the impact on their water.

Michigan is one of two state in the US that exempts the governor and legislators from public records law, which undermines any claims of transparency and email correspondence leaked from the governor’s office has led to allegations that he made intentional attempts to circumvent the Freedom of Information Act. The state’s use of emergency managers to supersede local governance had been met with resistance since 2011. Flint City Mayor Karen Weaver who was elected after the crisis said: “What’s been taken away is our voice”.

Nearby Detroit has also been hit over the years with high water bills, bans on rainwater collection and water shut offs in predominately black areas.

China has seen environmental concerns become one of the main reasons for mass demonstration, in particular air pollution, but also in response of pollution of water sources and the construction of huge dams.

Circle of Blue is a pretty good resource for ongoing issues globally with water. They highlight how water can be a flashpoint because it is so fundamental to life.


Others Sources

American Scientist 104: 3 (May 2016) ‘Flint Water Crisis Yields Hard Lessons in Science and Ethics’ p. 134-136 ‘Moving Forward After Flint’ p. 137-139

Dennis, Brady (2016) ‘EPA should have intervened in Flint water crisis months earlier, watchdog says’ The Washington Post 20 October

Drake, Jeanette L (2016). ‘Toxic Communication’ Public Relations Strategist22:1 p. 14-16


Mertha, Andrew (2010) China’s Water Warriors


Water defenders image: Paul Moore


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