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Letter from HF President: Flint Water Crisis

The news coming out of Flint, Michigan in recent weeks should sadden and infuriate us all. Our hearts go out to the children and families who have been poisoned by the contaminated water supply serving their homes, schools and businesses. But in the face of this environmental calamity, sympathy is insufficient. We should be angry. Very angry.

Flint is a city that has transitioned from a booming center of manufacturing into a largely-forgotten community saddled with debt, unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. Its residents—most of them young, poor and people of color—were forced in 2014 to switch their water supply to the Flint River. Within weeks of the switch, residents of the city complained about the water quality. Tragically, their complaints were repeatedly ignored by local and state administrators and policy makers.

It would be easy to look at this crisis as something rare in America or a simple if tragic example of government mismanagement. That would be a mistake. History tells us that poor communities and communities of color are often the victims of willful neglect when it comes to environmental hazards. Lead poisoning continues to be an issue in African American and Latino communities across the country. In 2014, for example, nearly 1,000 children under the age of six tested positive for lead poisoning in New York City. Many of those children are Black and Latino.

But the problems aren’t limited to lead poisoning. Just as troubling as the high lead poisoning rates, are the rates of pollution-induced asthma and other issues that bedevil communities of color everywhere in America.

The truth is that poor environmental conditions have a disproportionate effect on the health of communities of color. This is unacceptable. Lead poisoning, asthma and other maladies are preventable. But they require investment and oversight from government. We were pleased this week to learn that President Obama has included the Land and Water Conservation Fund (LWCF) in his annual budget. The Fund, which the Hispanic Federation has been fighting to protect from budget-cutters in Washington, provides critical funding to support parklands and other green-spaces that are essential to exercise and healthy living. These funds are particularly important for poor communities where private funds are often limited and where the need for clean and safe green-spaces is greater.

Of course, one piece of legislation isn’t enough. As the crisis in Flint demonstrates, local and state governments have a responsibility to ensure that all communities have access to clean and safe drinking water, and are achieving environmental standards that do not threaten the livelihoods of communities. There is no budget crisis big enough to justify a government knowingly compromising the health of our children and families.

We are committed to working with many of you - our member groups, sister organizations, funding partners and concerned citizens - to ensure that we continuously raise our voices and fight for environmental justice for our marginalized communities. Together, we must work to ensure that what happened in Flint never happens again.