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Water crisis in Flint, Michigan

UM researcher's work sheds light on disaster in Flint, Michigan, for national audience

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“I personally want to make a difference in how fair our society is in regards to our environmental practices,” says Robin Saha, a University of Montana associate professor in environmental studies whose research on race, poverty and environmental degradation is being cited in the national media coverage of Flint, Mich.

When the national media started paying attention to the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, people again started asking if residents of other poor, minority communities were more likely to be exposed to environmental harms.

The answer is yes, and a University of Montana associate professor in environmental studies has done research that is helping make the case to a national audience.

UM's Robin Saha is a contributor to a paper called "Living in the Shadow of Danger: Poverty, Race, and Unequal Chemical Facility Hazards," and the work he and a team published last month in Environmental Research Letters has been cited by the Huffington Post, the Boston Globe and Truthout.org in recent stories about the lead in Flint's water.

"It validates that your work is relevant and connected to things that matter to people and their lives," Saha said Tuesday. "That's why I do the work. I personally want to make a difference in how fair our society is in regards to our environmental practices. Awareness and understanding of the problem is certainly a big piece of it."

The work builds on similar research Saha has conducted, as well as findings by other scientists, and it confirms similar results, too. For Saha and other educators in environmental studies at UM, he said, the academic work on campus also becomes leverage for social change in the community and beyond.

"There's tremendous effort to use this type of study to say, 'Look, we need to make some changes,' " Saha said. " 'Here are some simple ones we can do.' "

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In Flint, people who are mostly black and disproportionately poor drank poisoned water, but officials ignored them when they got sick. Last month, President Barack Obama declared a national emergency.

"People talk about how that would have never happened in a rich, white community, and it's hard to argue with that," Saha said. "Sometimes, the obvious just needs to get said."

In the U.S., 12,500 facilities use or store "extremely dangerous chemicals" requiring risk management plans, according to the report to which Saha contributed. The study found the health of some 23 million people, or 7.5 percent of the total U.S. population, who live within one mile of these sites to be "severely and unequally impacted."

"People of color and people living in poverty, especially poor children of color, are significantly more likely to live in these fence-line zones than whites and people with incomes above the poverty line," according to the report.

The situation in Flint is making palpable the findings in the report, a project of the Center for Effective Government.

"It's raised an alarm that we have a problem with environmental justice in this country, and the seriousness of it, the effects of it, when there is mismanagement and gross neglect," Saha said.

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As part of the project, the Center for Effective Government graded states "based on the dangers faced by people of color and residents with incomes below the poverty line living within one mile of dangerous facilities." Montana scored a C.

The report counted 41 industrial facilities in Montana that handle large amounts of dangerous chemicals and have to file risk management plans with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. It showed a high number of people in poverty live near all those industrial facilities, Saha said.

An estimated 42,502 people, or 4.3 percent of the state population, live in the risk zone, he said. Of those, 25.8 percent live below poverty.

In Missoula, Bob Oaks, director of the North Missoula Community Development Corp., has been a longtime advocate for the neighborhood on the north end of the city with industrial parcels, including the White Pine Sash Superfund site. He recalled a lawyer for Huttig Building Products, on the hook for the cleanup, arguing for lower remediation standards because "it was such an undesirable neighborhood that nobody would want to live there anyway."

"I've always seen it as an environmental justice issue, and that's more in terms of the surrounding low-income neighborhood," Oaks said.

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People in Missoula also pay close attention to local government, and that's to their advantage, Saha said.

"I think Missoula is fortunate to have a strong, active citizenry, and we've cleaned up our air to a large degree," he said.

In general, he said, the environmental justice movement has had many successes in the last 30 years. At the local level, though, it continues to require an engaged public, not just policy wonks and scientific experts.

For instance, Saha said, residents should be informed about the pollution at the old Frenchtown mill, the former Smurfit-Stone Container Corp. site.

"I think we just need to still be vigilant about our contaminated sites that we have," Saha said. "There needs to be a lot of good public participation and public information."

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