Steve Mirsky:Welcome to the Scientific American podcast Science Talk posted on October 17, 2016. I'm Steve Mirsky. On this episode –
Paul Mohai: And I honestly see this as probably the most egregious case that I can think of for so many reasons. One is just the sheer number of people affected – almost 100,000 people.
Mirsky: That's Paul Mohai and to tell you about Paul Mohai and where that audio comes from I'm going to be talking right now to Robin Lloyd. She's a contributing editor at Scientific American. Full disclosure she's also my wife. Robin, who is Paul Mohai and where did the audio come from?
Robin Lloyd: Well the audio came from a workshop in Detroit in April that I attended. It was about water infrastructure in urban areas. The workshop was organized and sponsored by the Institute for Journalism and Natural Resources. And that's where I met Mohai. He was one of the speakers. He's a professor at the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment. And he cofounded the Environmental Justice program there. I'll tell you a little bit more what that means in a sec.
Mohai was also a member of the U.S. EPA's National Environmental Justice Advisory Council for six years. That was starting in 2007. So that phrase environmental justice is kind of a buzzword. It's also a phrase used specifically to describe or study or talk about the ways that pollution, water, safety, lead poisoning, mercury levels, transit issues, and the like intersect with so-called with social justice issues. So like bias, discrimination based on variables such as race, ethnicity, and social class.
So Mohai talked with us about some of the early history of federal policy to address environmental justice. And then he made some comments about the leaded water crisis in Flint, Michigan that we all know made national headlines starting last year. Just to review the Flint situation that issue really started a year before in 2014 when the city changed its drinking water source from the Detroit Water and Sewerage Department which treats water that comes from Lake Huron and the Detroit River.
So the switch was to sourcing the city's drinking water from the Flint River. And that water very unfortunately had not been treated to inhibit corrosion in the aging pipes that delivered the water. And that ended up contaminating the local water with lead and creating a public health problem that affected thousands of children among others. And as most of us know or have heard lead exposure at certain levels in children can lower their intellectual functioning and IQ and performance in school. And the situation isn't over. There is a lot of legal activity and activism going on in Flint and the state of Michigan to resolve the issues that fell out of that.
Finally during his talk with us Mohai talked about two studies that he recently completed to look into factors affecting where hazardous waste facilities are located or sited in the United States. So during this talk you will hear some questions and comments from some of the local journalists with such media outlets as Michigan Radio and The Detroit Free Press who also attended the workshop.
And there is just one more point to clarify. Mohai is going to mention Leanne Walters. She's a parent in Flint who has been quite involved since early 2015 in trying to get the water crisis addressed. She eventually alerted an EPA official later that year about the health problems affecting her family after the water source was switched to the Flint River. And that's more or less when everything started to blow up and become a national story.
Mirsky: Okay. So without any further ado we'll hear from Paul Mohai.
Mohai: I was a founder of the Environmental Justice program at Michigan with my colleague Professor Bunyan Bryant who retired several years ago. And I've been interested in this issue for about 30 years now. Just so you know what my perspective is I'm mostly a quantitative researcher. And in 1987 when this report: Toxic Waste and Race in the United States came out and I read it really got me interested in this issue.
It was a national study that had quantitative empirical data. They used fairly sophisticated statistical techniques to analyze it. And I was very interested in whether other studies like it existed. So Professor Bryant and I did one of the first reviews about the state of the evidence and scientific knowledge at that time. We found maybe about a dozen more or so studies. But I started with Professor Bryant but I also went on to do both local studies in the Detroit area and nationally looking at the patterns.
And looking to see how important the magnitudes were and being convinced that the disparities existed. And that there is both a socioeconomic and a racial ethnic component. That's been a question that's been raised a lot. Is it race? Is it socioeconomic status? I think it's both. When you use multivariate statistical analysis the racial disparities do not disappear. They remain statistically significant. And when you think about the history of slavery and Jim Crow and segregation a lot of the damage has been done. I think that legacy of racism that we've had in the US is part of the reason why we still see the racial dimensions emerge.
I have tried to follow other published papers that come out with empirical studies. I've done my own. But I don't consider myself an activist. But I like to make myself available if I'm helpful. I have had a lot of relationships with activists and with the EPA and also with the state government. I was on EPA's Environmental Justice Advisory Council for six years. I was term limited but back in the early 1990s Professor Bryant and I organized a conference that was called the Michigan Conference on Race and the Incidence of Environmental Hazards.
And that got the attention of the EPA. And he and I and I think there were eight of altogether were invited to the EPA in September of 1990 to talk with the head of the EPA William Reilly. They were very persuaded by our arguments, by the reports that came out. And the EPA began to work on this issue. They came out with their own report in 1992 called Environmental Equity: Reducing Risks for All Communities.
In 1992 that report was really important because that was the first official acknowledgement by the EPA or any agency of federal government that this problem was a real problem and that something needs to be done about it. And I've gotten a lot of calls from journalists since January asking for my views about the environmental justice dimensions of the Flint water crisis. And I honestly see this as probably the most egregious case that I can think of for so many reasons.
One is just the sheer number of people affected – almost 100,000 people, the severe health problems that the lead poisoning has caused. And I've gone two-thirds through the Flint Water Taskforce Report. I think their estimate – Or they said we know of 200 confirmed cases and we think this is a vast underestimate of the number of children poisoned in Flint.
In addition to the spike in lead poisoning there was also a spike in incidents of Legionnaire's disease. I think 80 people came down with is an ten people – roughly those numbers –
Audience: Ten people died.
Mohai: died from it. And there are real serious concerns that that also was linked to the contaminated water. So let me first outline some of the aspects of this case that make it I think not only a classic case but maybe one of the most – if not most – egregious cases. First of all just demographically it fits the pattern.
We have a community that's predominantly people of color. Only 37 percent of the residents are white. Fifty-seven percent are African American. And there are other racial and ethnic groups in there as well. Its poverty rate is over 40 percent – more than twice the state average. So this is very typical of the environmental justice cases of which there have been a lot of publications and people have done case studies. I can't tell you the number. In fact this study has got me starting to catalog them.
But there are a lot of documented, peer-reviewed publications that are looking at this is what happened in this city. And here is the problem. This is how the community responded. This is the response they got. Here are the cases where the activism succeeded. Here are the elements. And I have to say the media is always involved. If you look at all the cases where the residents got some relief the media paid attention and publicized their story.
And it could be local but I can tell you if it goes national that is – I can't think of a case that was successful where the media did not play an important role. And I think the media has played an enormously important role. I did not see the state really responding in any serious way. They responded by discounting all the evidence, dismissing the residents, disrespecting them, treating them as if they were stupid. I heard Leanne Walters being interviewed I think it was on one of the morning shows.
She was saying you now we complained. They treated us like we were stupid. I cannot tell you. That's not an uncommon thing to hear from the residents. I heard that 20 years ago when the Flint residents were protesting the waste wood burning facility that they just happened to extract some energy out of it. One of the local activists, an African American woman who has since passed on who was a professor at the University of Michigan – There was a court case on it and I was one of the expert witnesses.
I had a chance to meet her and she said, "Dr. Mohai when we go to these public hearings they talk down to us and they think we're all stupid." And this is a tenured professor at the University of Michigan at Flint. And she's saying they talk to us as if we're stupid. And this is very typical of these cases. You have in Flint obviously a very severe environmental problem, people actually bringing their concerns within a couple of months after the water was switched. The other thing that makes this so much an environmental justice case is the demographics. It's the environmental problem.
But also look at how citizen concerns are treated. This lack of respect, discounting people's claims, dismissing their concerns, and even at the point when the state was kind of forced – And I think part of it was the mounting evidence but it seems to me that an absolutely critical part of that was the media attention especially when it went national.
Audience: Dr. Mohai one of the things I liked about the most recent study you did looking at this – I think it had to do with the siting of hazardous waste facility.
Mohai: Yeah which came first?
Audience: Right. One of the big questions has always been the chicken or the egg.
Audience: Do people move? Do people in poverty, do people of color move to areas that have these kinds of facilities because it's cheaper to live there? Or do they site these facilities where the poor people are? And your study accounted for the chicken or the egg. Can you talk a little bit about that?
Mohai: Well that's right. And just so we can make the research project manageable we just looked at commercial hazardous waste facilities sited in the US. We did kind of a complete inventory – as complete as we could make it on the public record of those facilities. And then we researched when they were built. And we asked the question what were the demographics at the locations that eventually got the facilities right at the time of siting?
Were they disproportionately poor? Were they disproportionately people of color? Or was that not the case but once a facility got sited there did it trigger those demographic changes? And what we found was the answer initially looks like it's both. You see a pattern of disproportionately placing of them – people of color in poor communities. And you see the disparities increasing over time. But what we found when we went back to before the facilities were sited that the demographic changes were already occurring before the facilities were sited.
So we looked at 1970, 1980, 1990, and 2000 the decline in white percentages around these sites. Well facilities that were sited in 1980 and 1990 were already losing whites and I was just struck at how straight the line was. There is not even a kink because the facility was placed there. So it's really the first study that demonstrates that pattern. And we certainly needed to replicate it for industrial facilities, power plants, and all sorts of things. But based on commercial hazardous waste facilities I think the pattern is pretty clear.
There has been a pattern of doing this. And by the way thank you for asking that question 'cause it gives me an opportunity to address something that I get asked a lot especially if determined environmental racism is used. Is it intentionality? And I'll tell you that's gotten to be such a tricky topic or concept because the Supreme Court in its rulings has made it almost impossible to litigate environmental justice cases based on civil rights laws because you actually have to prove intentionality.
And the thing is how do you prove an attitude? How do you get into somebody's mind and know whether they did it out of hatred? So that bar is so high you can't even use it. And I would say Dr. Mohai is it because it's intent to harm black people or people of color? I don't think it's so much like it's an intent to harm them as it is not caring if you do harm them because I think the primary motive is profit. You know money before people's welfare.
In fact I was thinking about it. Let's redefine environmental racism as you know the philosophy of money before people's welfare because it's not caring. And I thought one of the things that made Flint unique in addition to it affecting so many people is the evidence linking the contamination with the lead poisoning. So I've heard a lot of times well Southwest Detroit which fortunately got some coverage in Newsweek it's tough in those kinds of situations to get that kind of coverage because questions are always raised well how do you know people's cancer or asthma has to do with kids inhaling secondhand smoke?
How do you know that the cancer isn't because of a bad diet or lack of access to healthcare? In Flint lead poisoning isn't caused by smoking. It isn't caused by a bad diet. So I think the clarity about the cause and effect linkage is especially clear. And I have to think that that's one of the reasons why too that that's gotten some coverage. But it's also raised the question of are there other Flints out there? And it's not just the contaminated water. But I think it should get us to thinking about everywhere we live about the lead in the water.
But there are a lot of cases out there where you have predominantly people of color communities, predominantly poor that have a severe environmental problem and are getting entirely –
Mohai: ignored – exactly.
Lloyd: There's still news almost every week related to the Flint water crisis and the state of Michigan. So the latest from The Detroit Free Press is that the ACLU of Michigan plans to announce a lawsuit October 18th related to the lead contaminated drinking water in Flint.
Mirsky: That's it for this episode. Get your science news at our Web site: www.scientificamerican.com where you can read about how researchers got silkworms to spin superstrong silk by feeding them carbon nanotubes. And check out the article about how the four presidential candidates answered questions about their science policies. Don't forget to follow us on the Twitters where you'll get a tweet whenever a new item hits the Web site. Our Twitter name is: @sciam. For Scientific American Science Talk I'm Steve Mirsky. Thanks for clicking on us.