Friday, August 23, 2019

Sustainability Case Studies--Chapter 5. Drinking Water Infrastructure Inequality and Environmental Injustice: The Case of Flint Michigan

Click for photo credit.
This is the fifth post in this blog series, Sustainability Case Studies, that is based on the book The Palgrave Handbook of Sustainability:  Case Studies and Practical Solutions edited by Robert Brinkmann (yours truly) and Sandra Garren and published by Palgrave Macmillan in 2018. Each post in the series will comment on the content of the chapter as well as some general take-aways or practical teaching or personal/organizational initiatives that could be gleaned from the chapter. Links to previous posts on the series (including the post that introduced the series) follow after the chapter review.

Today's post focuses on Chapter 5 by Adrienne L. Katner, Kelsey Pieper, Yanna Lambrinidou, Komal Brown, Wilma Subra, and Marc Edwards of Louisiana State University, Virgnia Tech University, and the Louisiana Environmental Action Network.

What happened to the people in Flint, Michigan as a result of poor water management decision making is one of the most important environmental stories of the last two decades. This chapter reviews the events and provides significant background to understand the broader issues associated with environmental injustice and water infrastructure in the United States.

The chapter begins with a review of the history of lead poisoning and its impacts on communities as well as the public health issues associated with old water infrastructure. The authors note that utilities can control the release of lead and pathogens (particularly Legionella) in older infrastructure by reducing the corrosivity of water leaving water plants. Unfortunately, it is difficult to assess the extent of lead and legionella problems in water infrastructure and the problem is underestimated. The authors review the challenging issues associated with aging infrastructure and its extent. It is also difficult to sample for lead in water effectively given the scale of the infrastructure.

The chapter continues by describing the nature and extent of the lead and legionella problems that emerged in Flint. Low income communities were greatly impacted by the problem. In addition, the remedies to the problem, which include in-house plumbing replacement and home treatment or filtration systems are often financially out of reach of many.

Downtown Flint. Click for photo credit.
In the Lessons Learned section of the chapter, the authors list several important points including the need for creative financing strategies to facilitate small water systems training, to share the costs of infrastructure replacement, and increase the support for state and federal monitoring, enforcement, and health surveillance.

However, the authors noted that there are several challenges and barriers. First and foremost, is the fact that Flint suffered from socioeconomic collapse and as a result there are a variety of financial burdens for the city and individual community members. In addition, there is the question as to who is responsible for the infrastructure leading from the street to the house. There are also regulatory gaps and weaknesses in oversight and enforcement of existing rules. Finally, there are a variety of personal costs associated with this environmental injustice that should be concerning to other communities.

There is much more in this fascinating chapter that reviews important environmental justice issues that emerged in the Flint crisis.


Click here to for more information about the book

Here are some discussion questions that can be used when using this chapter in a lesson on environmental justice, water infrastructure, and sustainability.

1. Lead is one of the most problematic environmental pollutants facing us. What are the impacts of lead poisoning?
2. Legionella is emerging as a growing concern in water delivery systems. Explain why.
3. Why is our aging water infrastructure a concern to public health professionals?
4. What do the authors mean by, "infrastructure inequality"?
5. Why do you think the community of Flint was so hard hit by the water infrastructure problem?
6. In the Challenges and Barriers section of the article, the authors highlighted the financial burdens associated with replacing the nation's infrastructure. What are they?
7. We have lots of rules regarding water quality in the United States. Given this, why did the Flint crisis happen?
8. How did the U.S. Government react to the Flint water crisis?


Previous posts in this series:

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