Establishing justice By Shea Howell

Thinking for ourselves

By Shea Howell

Establishing justice

March 27, 2016

shea33This week the Flint Water Crisis Task Force released its final report. The report makes critical contributions to the public discussion of what happened in Flint, where the responsibility rests, and what should be done about it. Most importantly, the report makes clear that state authorities treated the people of Flint with contempt, disrespect, and disregard for their health and lives. At the core of the State’s actions was deep-seated racism. The report invokes the concept of Environmental Justice, opening important perspectives for us to consider as we decide how to move forward.

The report falls short in calling for the repeal of emergency management legislation. It acknowledges that it was unable to investigate the Karegnondi Water Authority and issues surrounding its creation. However, it cuts through some of the lies Governor Snyder has been pushing to avoid responsibility.

First, the Task Force places blame squarely on the State. In response to the Governor’s strategy of blaming everyone, they say, “Though it may be technically true that all levels of government failed, the state’s responsibilities should not be deflected. The causes of the crisis lie primarily at the feet of the state by virtue of its agencies’ failures and its appointed emergency managers’ misjudgments.

Second, the report highlights the role Emergency Mangers played in the key decisions surrounding the water crisis. It emphasizes the consequences of legislation that concentrates power in the hands of a single individual without democratic checks and balances. The Task force concluded, “The Flint water crisis occurred when state-appointed emergency managers replaced local representative decision-making in Flint, removing the checks and balances and public accountability that come with public decision-making. Emergency managers made key decisions that contributed to the crisis, from the use of the Flint River to delays in reconnecting to DWSD once water quality problems were encountered.”

Third, the Task Force addresses openly the environmental injustice embedded in the chain of choices made by the Governor and his appointees. As the New York Times commented, the report “makes clear the principal cause of the water crisis in Flint, Mich.: the state government’s blatant disregard for the lives and health of poor and black residents of a distressed city.”

The Times editorial goes on to say of the report, “While it avoids using the word “racism,” it clearly identifies the central role that race and poverty play in this story.” This report should be read along with the Principles of Environmental Justice. They offer a standard for us to judge how we are meeting our responsibilities to Flint, to one another and to the earth.

These Principles were crafted at the People of Color Environmental leadership Summit in 1991 “to build a national and international movement of all peoples of color to fight the destruction and taking of our lands and communities,” and to “re-establish our spiritual interdependence to the sacredness of our Mother Earth.”

Among the 17 principles are these:

  • Environmental justice demands that public policy be based on mutual respect and justice for all peoples, free from any form of discrimination or bias.
  • Environmental justice affirms the fundamental right to political, economic, cultural and environmental self-determination of all peoples.
  • Environmental justice demands the right to participate as equal partners at every level of decision-making including needs assessment, planning, implementation, enforcement and evaluation.
  • Environmental justice protects the right of victims of environmental injustice to receive full compensation and reparations for damages as well as quality health care.
  • Environmental justice considers governmental acts of environmental injustice a violation of international law, the Universal Declaration On Human Rights, and the United Nations Convention on Genocide.
  • Environmental justice calls for the education of present and future generations which emphasizes social and environmental issues, based on our experience and an appreciation of our diverse cultural perspectives.


Governor Snyder, his appointed administrators, and the State Legislature violated these core principles. We have a long way to go to establish justice.