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Task Force: Flint’s Black Residents Didn’t Receive “Same Degree of Protection From Environmental Hazards” in Water Crisis

A crowd listens as Flint residents speak during the Michigan Civil Rights Commission public hearing on Thursday, April 28, 2016, at the Riverfront Banquet Center in downtown Flint. Photo by Ryan Garza Detroit Free Press

A crowd listens as Flint residents speak during the Michigan Civil Rights Commission public hearing on Thursday, April 28, 2016, at the Riverfront Banquet Center in downtown Flint. Photo by Ryan Garza Detroit Free Press

Many don’t doubt that race played a major role in the Flint, Michigan water crisis. At least that’s what many Flint residents expressed to the state’s civil rights commission at a public hearing Thursday.

The Michigan Civil Rights Commission conducted its first public hearing, investigating the contaminated water crisis that has unfolded over the last two years, the Detroit Free Press reports.

Residents of Flint voiced their concerns to a non-partisan, eight-member panel appointed by Michigan governor Rick Snyder. Witness testimony from the state’s licensing, education, labor and police departments took place later on that evening. Per the Detroit Free Press, three similar hearings are expected to be held before the commission reaches its conclusions.

Flint’s water supply became tainted when the city, in an attempt to save money, opted to leave the Detroit water system and begin drawing water from the Flint River. The terribly corrosive water then seeped lead into service lines and ultimately into the homes of Flint residents. The city has since switched back to using the Detroit water system, but it still experiences spikes in the lead levels from time to time, according to Detroit Free Press reports.

Eric Mays, a Flint council member, asserted that the root cause of the water crisis was racism. He says that low-income communities with predominately African-American populations in the state of Michigan have been targeted for emergency managers, while communities with a white population have not. According to the U.S. Census, 57 percent of Flint’s residents are Black.

He isn’t the only one who feels this way. According to CNN, several other advocates assert that Flint’s residents are victims of “environmental racism” — race and poverty were factored into insufficient protection from water supply contamination.

“While it might not be intentional, there’s this implicit bias against older cities — particularly older cities with poverty [and] majority-minority communities,” said Democratic U.S. Rep. Dan Kildee, who represents the Flint area. “It’s hard for me to imagine the indifference that we’ve seen exhibited if this had happened in a much more affluent community.”

In a statement to CNN, the NAACP said that more probably would have been done, and at a quicker rate “if nearly 40 percent of Flint residents were not living below the poverty line.”

Co-chairman of Michigan’s Civil Rights Commission Arthur Horwitz promised that he would take Mays’ testimony and the testimonies of all others into consideration and utilize the commission’s ability make recommendations to influence public policy, the Detroit Free Press reports.

Earlier this year when MSNBC asked Gov. Snyder if he thought environmental discrimination had anything to do with the Flint water crisis, he responded, “Absolutely not.” The governor instead blames it on “career bureaucrats” and lack of accountability at “every level of government,” the paper reports.

Per the Detroit Free Press, last month, Snyder’s task force concluded that “Flint residents, who are majority Black or African American and among the most impoverished of any metropolitan area in the United States, did not enjoy the same degree of protection from environmental and health hazards as that provided to other communities.” It then requested that the governor issue an executive order that would require training on environmental justice in all state agencies.

Snyder’s office plans to review the task force’s recommendations. They say the governor is open to making changes to the emergency manager law.

Last week, Michigan Attorney General Bill Schuette announced the indictments of two Michigan Department of Environmental Quality employees and a Flint city official for the poisoning of an entire community.

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