Groups seek probe of ‘institutional racism’ in Flint

Jonathan Oosting
Detroit News Lansing Bureau

Lansing — Environmental and civil rights groups are calling on the Obama administration to review Michigan’s compliance with federal non-discrimination laws designed to prohibit the type of “institutional racism” they say precipitated Flint’s water contamination crisis.

National nonprofit Earthjustice on Tuesday sent a letter to Office of Civil Rights directors with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency requesting a review of the Michigan departments of Environmental Quality and Health and Human Services.

“MDEQ and MDHHS would never have treated a white, affluent city with the callousness that characterized their approach to Flint,” they wrote, pointing out that more than half of the city’s residents are African American. “This fundamental injustice has caused Flint residents, and especially Flint’s children, irreparable harm.”

The letter, also sent to the U.S. Department of Justice and state department heads, was signed by the Sierra Club, the Michigan chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, the Sugar Law Center and more than 20 other local, state and national organizations and individuals.

MDEQ spokeswoman Mel Brown responded to the letter by saying the department “has and will continue to undertake efforts to ensure that all communities are treated fairly and equally under the environmental statues” that govern its work.

“Furthermore, department staff treat each issue with the seriousness and objectivity that each circumstance presents, deploying hundreds of regional staff across the state each week to investigate and discover environmental issues that impact people’s lives each day,” she said in an email.

The state health department declined to weigh in.

“Given the letter was just issued today, MDHHS is not going to comment at this time and pending further review,” spokeswoman Jennifer Eisner said Tuesday.

The groups argue the water crisis provides “ample reason to believe” that the state agencies violated Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act, which extended civil rights protections to people with disabilities.

The federal departments have the authority to launch civil rights compliance reviews of state or local agencies but rarely exercise that power, said Earthjustice attorney Marianne Engelman Lado. She noted the Department of Justice initiated a compliance review of the Ferguson Police Department after the 2014 fatal shooting of Michael Brown.

EPA “doesn’t have to wait for someone to file a complaint if it has reason to believe there is discrimination or non-compliance going on,” Lado said. “It’s supposed to hold agencies and recipients of federal funding responsible.”

The letter accuses the DEQ of demonstrating “callous and unjustifiable indifference to the concerns of Flint’s residents — most of whom are African American — before, during and after the switch to Flint River water.”

The city used Flint River water between April 2014 and October 2015. The switch initially prompted resident complaints over color, taste and odor, and researchers eventually discovered elevated lead levels since attributed to a lack of corrosion control additives. The DEQ did not require the city to use those chemicals.

The state health department “compounded the crisis by failing to recognize or respond to the public health consequences of DEQ’s failures,” according to the letter, which cites the impact on African Americans, along with Latino and disabled residents who may have had difficulties obtaining bottled water due to language or physical barriers.

The letter also highlights air pollution and other concerns in industry-heavy areas of Detroit, arguing the DEQ has ignored health impacts when issuing permits in the minority-majority city.

“I wonder if it’s germ warfare on communities of color,” said Vincent Martin of Original United Citizens of Southwest Detroit.

The groups are calling on federal departments to evaluate the actions, policies and practices of the state agencies to identity and address any areas of non-compliance with civil rights laws.

Brown noted the DEQ has worked to install additional air quality filters in southwest Detroit, holds public hearings on various proposals and “continues to seek new ways to engage with all communities equally and fairly regardless of geography or demographic.”

The department is “dedicated now more then ever, to working with all individuals and groups as it addresses the important environmental issues that all Michiganders are passionate about — clean air, safe water, and protecting the lands of our natural environment that we call home,” Brown said in an email.

joosting@detroitnews.com