“Here’s the nexus of racism, poverty and environment,” said John Atherton, associate professor of philosophy at Seton Hill University. “It’s not just an environmental issue, but it certainly starts with the environment.”
Atherton used these words to describe the current situation in Flint, Mich., where the drinking water became contaminated with lead. According to Vox.com, about 8,000 Flint children were exposed to lead contamination that can cause irreversible brain damage.
“Students should care about this crisis because it could happen to anyone,” said senior education major Danielle Shilling. “It is up to each and every one of us to take care of our environment. If this idea was reflected in everyone, every day, imagine how much more beauty and harmony there would be in this world.”
Flint is roughly 70 miles north of Detroit, with approximately 100,000 residents. According to the United States Census Bureau, 56.6 percent of Flint residents in 2010 were African-American, and 41.6 percent of residents live in poverty.
“It’s not just ‘oh, it had to be that way,’” Atherton said, adding that he felt the government should have taken more steps to prevent the water crisis. “Now all hell is raining down on them.”
The Flint situation began in 2013, when the city was near bankruptcy. Michigan Gov. Rick Snyder appointed an emergency manager to control the city’s finances, and the manager decided to stop obtaining water from Detroit. However, because the system to receive water from Lake Huron was unfinished in April 2014, the city decided to use treated water from the Flint River instead.
According to NBCNews.com, residents began to complain about the water quality shortly after, saying it was discolored and smelled odd. The website also reported Michigan officials were told in February 2015 that water pipes were leaching lead into the water system. In August, a group from Virginia Tech tested the water and found elevated lead levels. After public outrage, Flint switched back to Detroit water in October.
Although Flint is not the only city with drinking water issues and lead contamination, it has gained publicity because government officials allegedly knew about the dangers of the Flint River water.
“They should’ve seen that they can’t use the Flint River, so then they have to get someplace else,” Atherton said. “The state has to provide these basic living conditions, and how much more basic can you get than water?”
Shilling, who serves as president of the Leaders for Environmental Awareness and Protection (LEAP) Club, shared many of the same feelings as Atherton.
“My reaction was similar to everyone’s first reaction when they heard about this disturbing news: shocked, and wondering how something like this could happen in this day and age,” Shilling said.
Shilling said she believes the water crisis could have been prevented by properly treating and testing the water. She added state officials should have acted as soon as they knew something was wrong.
“I hope this crisis can be looked back upon as a reminder that proper treatment of the environment should be more than just a thought in the back of our minds,” Shilling said.
Celebrities such as Cher and Beyoncé have become involved by donating water bottles and money to Flint. The water crisis has also become a hot topic in the presidential race; Democratic presidential candidates Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton debated in Flint Mar. 6. Despite the publicity Flint has received, Atherton said not many people in his Environmental Ethics class knew a lot about it.
“It’s as if the environmental issues don’t touch us, and that’s wrong,” Atherton said. “Have you breathed lately? Have you drunk water lately? What if that water and that air is poisoned? Do you want to do something about it? If you don’t want to do something about it, do you want to do something about it for your children?”
Atherton also serves as the LEAP Club’s advisor. He invited club members to see what he does to protect the environment at his house, which includes rain gardens and solar panels.
“LEAP Club aspires to show the necessary appreciation and respect for the environment by getting people out in nature, resulting in them wanting to do more to protect it,” Shilling said. “We are also a big believer in education regarding what college students can do to live a more eco-friendly lifestyle.”
Looking to the future, Shilling said she hopes the state officials responsible will be reprimanded, and that Flint residents can once again have clean drinking water and trust in their government. Atherton also said he hopes Snyder resigns. Although he is content with the press Flint has been receiving and the efforts to fix the situation, he is still concerned about the future.
“We forget things and it’s shameful,” Atherton said. “In ten years, are people going to remember Flint? The people in Flint will, but will anybody else? I can almost guarantee no.”
As investigations continue and Flint attempts to recover, Atherton said he hopes more people become educated about environmental issues in order to prevent another Flint from happening.
“Get inspired by it,” Atherton said. “How are you going to be changing the world if you can’t change yourself?”